Mystic River of Misery

Don’t be fooled by the title. I liked Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, although it leaves one as optimistic about the human condition as his other classic, Unforgiven, which left us with a “redeemed” William Munny reverted back to vigilante killer.

And if your tastes run toward Oedipus the King, you may especially like Mystic River. In the film’s epilogue one of the main characters drifts down a city street staring with open-mouthed bewilderment at several of the other characters whose lives continue, while hers has been inexplicably ruined. You realize as viewer that this tragedy has no silver lining, unless it be Aristotle’s cathartic “Ah, it is she, and not me.”

The film begins in just that mood. Three boys play on a street when one is singled out by fate to endure an ordeal too awful to describe. Why this boy and this horror, neither Eastwood nor screenwriter Brian Helgeland tell us. Nor do they explain why providence allows the effects of this evil to ripple so wide. The inscrutable mystic river of life feeds some, while others it swallows alive.

The film stops, or seems to stop, in a closed moment when all three main characters, the boys now grown, find the trajectory of their lives meeting at a point. One has died. The other two discover together the circumstances of that death, and learn fully their own complicity in it. The world is changed forever–the two wounded survivors walk off into the sunset in the fashion of the true Western, Eastwood’s tribute to the tradition that allowed him his career. The screen goes black and I am reaching for my hat when it lights again and the film offers the aforementioned epilogue, a heavy rain of ambiguity drenching the already muddy street.

Before shifting here to the script and the performances, both of which are outstanding, I am duty bound to make one further comment about the film’s message, especially as it relates to the last film we reviewed in FILMMAKERS, The Magdalene Sisters. Crosses appear everywhere in Mystic River. The sick villain who helps perpetrate the atrocity that poisons the lives of all these characters leans over the passenger seat of a car in the opening scene displaying a ring with a cross, suggesting, I think, that he is a priest. In many of the interior scenes, crucifixes hang prominently on background walls. In the epilogue, the lead character of Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, sits on the edge of his bed with shirt off to reveal a huge tattoo of a sword pointed downward in the shape of, you guessed it, a cross.

What does all this suggest? Perhaps that Eastwood, once devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, believes that the golden thread weaving together the lives of women and men is not spun out from the loom of a benevolent God who providentially leads his children toward some final redemption. Rather, God murdered his own son, so beware.

No one would be talking about Mystic River if not for the brilliant script behind it by Brian Helgeland (drawn from a Dennis Lehane novel), and the equally brilliant acting of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, and Kevin Bacon, in particular. Many of the scenes in this film find characters in the most extreme of circumstances. A wife goes to the morgue to meet her husband who has just identified the body of his beloved daughter, murdered and thrown into a hole. The wife is still in denial, the husband in shock but already plotting revenge. Try writing or performing that in a convincing way.

There must be two dozen scenes in the film at this level of emotional complexity, and were it not for the level of the performances, especially Penn’s, this film would dissolve into maudlin misery. In fact, it is a wonder that director Eastwood took up the risk, notwithstanding the twenty-three previous films under his belt.

Finally, if tempted to envision Clint Eastwood principally as the squinting man in the pancho with a lightning draw or as Dirty Harry Callahan holding his .44 magnum out and spitting, “C’mon, make my day” – think again. Mystic River proves that Unforgiven was no fluke and that Eastwood should now be looked upon as a director of the very first order.