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'Mystic River'

'Mystic River' swells with powerful acting, searing story

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

By Barbara Vancheri, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Watching "Mystic River" sucks the emotion and energy right out of moviegoers. It holds them in its grip for two-plus hours and leaves them spent, marveling at the acting delivered by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon.

 
 

"Mystic River"

Rating: R for language and violence
Starring: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon
Director: Clint Eastwood
Critic's call:

   
 
 

Clint Eastwood directs this adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, and he has assembled what may be the best ensemble of the year (so far). Penn delivers another Oscar-worthy performance, while Robbins shrinks into the specter of a man haunted by demons. Bacon has the least showy of the three roles, but one he handles with assurance. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney play two of the women in their lives.

"Mystic River" opens in a working-class Boston neighborhood in the 1970s as three boyhood pals -- Jimmy, Dave and Sean -- while away the hours playing ball. They contemplate "borrowing" a car for a spin around the block and decide to write their names in wet cement on the sidewalk.

Just as Dave is midway through leaving his mark, two men who appear to be cops pull up and throw him into the back of their car. The other boys watch as Dave turns and looks out the back window, unaware that what lies ahead is far worse than a dressing-down from his mother or even a trip to the precinct.

In a thankfully brief and discreet scene, we see he's locked in a basement and abused for days before making a break for it. When he returns home, one of the neighbors unkindly calls him "damaged goods," but it's clear that all three boys will never be the same.

Sean Penn in the film Mystic River.

The action then jumps ahead 25 years, and Dave (Robbins) is now married and the father of a young son. Jimmy (Penn) is a husband, father of three girls and operator of a corner grocery, and Sean (Bacon) is a Massachusetts state homicide detective with an absent wife. When Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is murdered, the onetime friends are forced into an uneasy reunion, where the thought of that long-ago day is never far away.

Bacon's dectective and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to the case, and as they weigh evidence against instinct, the bonds of friendship are tested -- and sometimes shattered -- once again.

Although the resolution to "Mystic River" is nowhere near as satisfying as what comes before (it seems to come out of left field in a way that's unfair to the attentive moviegoer), it appears to be faithful to the Lehane novel based on a quick read of the ending. If that is the film's flaw, the highlight is the superb acting, with special credit to Penn.

Many felt Penn should have won the Academy Award for 1995's "Dead Man Walking," but the best actor statue went to Nicolas Cage for "Leaving Las Vegas." Penn deserves another shot here. In one memorably photographed scene, his character is so out of his mind with pain and heartache and animalistic anger that it's hard to watch. In another, he has a haunting encounter in a funeral home that may stay in your head like a sorrowful snapshot.

"Mystic River," shot on location in the Boston area, is about many things: the long shadow of abuse and violence, the ability of secrets to destroy, the way a split-second decision can change lives, and the desire for revenge and its consequences. And always, there are reminders of the Catholic Church: the flash of a ring or tattoo in the shape of a cross, and a First Communion whose innocence is contrasted with something so much darker, in a way that calls to mind the baptism at the end of "The Godfather."

In addition to serving as director, Eastwood doubled as composer. Some dramatic moments seem like they would be better suited to silence than swelling symphonic music. But watching "Mystic River," you know you're in the hands of an Oscar-winning director who has command of a cast, location and searing story.


Barbara Vancheri can be reached at bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632.

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