Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Hardin, and Laurence Fishburne. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay by Brian Helgeland from the novel by Dennis Lehane.
The Mystic River flows deep and cold over dark past secrets, unspeakable shame and guilt that haunts a trio of early adolescent friends. Jimmy Markham, Sean Divine, and Dave Boyle dwelled in working-class Boston as typical boys on the street until a fateful day when a street hockey ball vanishes down a storm sewer and a freshly poured concrete sidewalk beckons the boys to sculpt their names forever in the wet concrete.
“Jimmy” and “Sean” are etched with rapid ease, but just as Dave is about to flourish his name with only the “DA__” completed, the boys are interrupted by the bark of an ersatz policeman. As quickly as Dave's signature is truncated, their innocence is lost and their lives are forever interrupted.
Jimmy (Sean Penn, in his Best Actor-winning role), and Sean (Kevin Bacon), scarred by guilt, grow into their lives, but forever marked by that day with the unforgivable sin of not being wise enough to prevent their pal's abduction to untold sexual predation. Dave (Tim Robbins, also winning the Academy Award, as Best Supporting Actor) loses his boyhood, but never fully regains his humanity. His shame and physical pain pale beside the psychological devastation of acts that are not only unspeakable, but not even hinted at on the screen. A wolf devoured his soul.
This movie doesn't titillate with depravity; its plot instead turns down the path of evil that lives after. Dave embarks on a life that he compares to that of a vampire, his life replaced by a facsimile of what it might have been, always the inchoate man that failed to survive his boyhood, a doppelganger without strength.
This prelude provides the backdrop to a murder mystery. The tragedy separates the three young men, who pursue existence on widely divergent paths. Markham is a petty thief rehabilitated into the neighborhood grocer. Divine is a cold cop, whose wife vacates their marriage except for haunting, wordless phone calls, and an ultimate unexplained reconciliation.
He and his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), beat the cadence of the film noire that leads us into the horror of losing a child. Jimmy's daughter is bludgeoned to death and left in a park. Dave re-enters modernity as a fractured adult walking his young baseball-playing son, who learns timidity and fear of the world from his cowering parents, past the storm sewer where the street hockey ball disappeared on the day that changed their lives.
Like Lady Macbeth
Divine and Powers (The names cannot be accidents) move the action alone to seek potential suspects in the murder. We see Annabeth Markham (Laura Linney) emerge as a Lady Macbeth-like wife. Linney's portrayal of this character, a blindly devoted morally vacant wife, strays from her usual sympathetic roles.
Initially as Katie Markham's stepmom, she seems callously unconcerned that Katie is missing, and hurls the accusation that Katie is selfishly spoiling her stepsister's First Communion. Later she waxes unfailingly supportive of her maniacal husband, and speaks of her reverence of him as head of household, willing to justify and sanctify whatever action and choices he makes.
Marcia Gay Hardin plays Dave's betraying and disloyal wife with a creepy medieval trembling at powers that she doesn't understand, but puts shreds of information into a tattered cloth that is neither pretty nor functional, but runs it up a pole like a banner and allows its treason to flap and shutter into noisy senselessness and betrayal.
Markham has become a tattooed bully and petty neighborhood gangster. He commands the loyalty of a hooligan class that fails to think clearly, but follows Markham in his grief into an abyss of distorted facts and twisted alleys that deliver us to the banks of the Mystic River, and the pinnacle solution that is so tragically wrong you feel like crawling under the seat in front of you.
Sean Penn's Markham is indeed marked—a cruciform Celtic cross tattooed on his back in the form of a sword, but also a mark of Cain from the fateful day of his youth, and from a previous moral transgression as an adult against the father of the young man, Brendan Harris, who loved his daughter and planned to escape to Las Vegas with her.
Bacon's performance as Divine has the tempo of a relentless narrator slowly releasing information about the shameful secrets to ooze out. Fishburne, an African-American masterful actor, is paradoxically named Whitey Powers, as his power derives from the badge, and pairing with Divine leads us through not only temptations, but vile corruptions of order and justice.
Tim Robbins turns in a virtuoso performance as the adult Dave Boyle, played hesitating with his life, afraid of the truth, easily led to concoct a false version of reality rather than bear up to his own weakness and his lack of self-forgiveness. It is a nuanced and sensitive performance, and my hat is off to him for this moving performance.
Linney and Hardin are deserving of applause and awards for framing this into what I consider the best movie I saw in 2003.
It is not an easy uplifting movie. It is a Shakespearean tragedy with tones of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and Hamlet. Dave Boyle clearly chose early to not be, and suffered many slings and arrows and indeed outrageous fortune after his spirit died at the hands of a predator.
The twisted tale of how his vampire is released might haunt you, but it surely will leave you wondering about the final resolutions. The movie ends with many unresolved fates, and a disturbing exchange between Divine and Markham. Do not miss this one.© 2004 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
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