Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Mystic River

Mystic River is one of those movies where, as I neared the end of it, I was fairly impressed... until the final credits rolled and I really started thinking about it, at which point my opinion of it fell off quite a bit.

The biggest asset of this Clint Eastwood-directed motion picture is the acting. With a cast made up of heavy hitters like Sean Penn, Marcia Gay Harding, Lawrence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and the sometimes-interesting Kevin Bacon, that's hardly surprising. While Penn seems a bit over-the-top at times here, virtually every one of the actors provides a note-perfect portrayal of a complex character. Penn and Robbins both won Oscars for their work (Lead Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively) and the latter, in particular, really shines.

Where the movie really goes off the rails, at least upon reflection, is in the storytelling. There are simply too many coincidences and convenient lapses of judgment as the events roll along. Mystic River revolves around three men (Penn, Robbins and Bacon) who were childhood friends in a poor part of Boston. One day they had mischievously begun writing their names in a fresh slab of sidewalk concrete only to caught in the act by two men in a car, pretending to be police officers. One of the kids - Robbins' character - is forced into the car and taken away. Four days later, after suffering hinted-at but never specified abuse at the hands of the men, the kid escapes and returns to his family. He's regarded as "damaged goods" by one of the adults in the neighbourhood at the time, and it's pretty clear that he never fully recovers from his trauma.

Thirty years later, the three have drifted apart to varying degrees but all still live or operate in the same part of Boston. Bacon's now a cop with relationship issues, Penn is an ex-con "gone straight" and Robbins has a wife and child but is living within a mental shell that he's constructed to allow himself some small measure of peace after what he went through during those four days. Penn's eldest daughter, and the apple of his eye, is brutally murdered, and that tragedy (in the first of many contrivances) brings the three of them back together. Suspicion begins to fall on "damaged goods" Robbins as the result of yet another series of events which, by film's end, you can't help but realize were completely implausible. Bacon and his cop partner (Fishburne) are the detectives investigating the murder (no conflict of interest there, I guess) and at one point they get their hands on a particular piece of evidence that, in any cop show I've ever watched, would have sealed the deal one way or another in terms of Robbins' involvement... and yet nothing comes of that. Somewhat later, though, the pair do break open the case, but just as they do so another terrible mistake occurs elsewhere that makes their discovery both ironic (I suppose) and moot. Because, you know, things that important always happen at the same time as each other... when they're written really badly!

It's a little difficult to convey just how gripping Mystic River was, as I watched it. I wasn't really questioning anything that happened in it, because the acting was so tight and the direction was top-notch. But it definitely suffered from a lack of coherence and needed another draft done on the screenplay. When I think of the revelation at the end of John Sayles' Lone Star, how that forces the first-time viewer to reconsider earlier events in the film in a new light and realize that all of the bizarre choices made earlier by one of the characters actually makes complete sense now, then I can't help but be disappointed with something like Mystic River. It felt, at times, like it was building up to that same sort of crescendo, but completely failed to deliver on it.

And, to make matters worse, there's a very unsatisfying epilogue that leaves you wondering why you bothered investing as much time in it as you did. It probably needed to end one scene earlier, although even that would only have redeemed it slightly.

I recommend Mystic River for the acting alone. Just don't go in expecting too much of it to hold together by the time it's all over.

Rating: ** 1/2