The first thing you notice in Mystic River is that the Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow logos are in black and white, and accompanied by dead silence. The black and white, to me, indicated a throwback to an earlier time in cinema, when genre pictures like crime dramas and murder mysteries were multi-layered with psychological ramifications and complicated motives. The silence sent a louder message: shut up and pay attention. (Isn’t it strange, how quiet an audience can get when there’s no sound?)The film then proceeds into a prologue that is terrifying in its mere subtlety. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are three nice Irish kids who live in a Boston suburb. One quiet afternoon, between rounds of street hockey, they’re caught scrawling their names in wet cement by a man who seems to be a cop. He intimidates them, puts Dave in his car, and drives away. The man is not a cop, but a pedophile, and Dave is kept and abused for four days before escaping (as played out in a riveting series of fade-outs).
Then Jimmy’s daughter is killed (revealed in a masterful sequence of helicopter shots and police calls). The night she was murdered, Dave came home covered in a blood and sporting a bruised hand whose origin changes every time he’s asked about it. Sean’s partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) thinks Dave may have done it; even Dave’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden) has her suspicions. Sean’s not so sure, because somewhere deep inside both he and Jimmy lurks guilt over that fall afternoon that will remain with them until the day they die.
This is powerful stuff. If Mystic River had been the work of some hot, new, young auteur, everyone would have shouted its praises from the highest rooftop. But it was the 24th film by Clint Eastwood, 73 at the time and helming arguably his best picture to that point. Eastwood is a confident enough filmmaker to stay the hell out of the way; his story and his actors carry the film, and his greatest accomplishment is to let them do their job. Throughout its unhurried running time (137 minutes), Eastwood refuses to reach, and refuses to rush.
The picture is populated with so many good performances, from so many first-rate actors, that it’s like watching a master class in film acting. Penn’s is the standout; his tough talk and hard manner form a mask for real pain, and three scenes here contain some of his best work. Watch the scene where he finds out his daughter is dead—and, specifically, how quickly his fear turns to anger. Watch the scene where he sits on his back porch and talks to Robbins; he speaks so simply, and so plainly, that it breaks your heart. And watch his scene in the funeral home, which is as fine a piece of acting as you’re likely to see anytime soon.
God, this movie’s fantastic. It’s refreshing—a movie made by grown-ups, for grown-ups. The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) elegantly boils down the terse novel by Dennis Lahane (Gone Baby Gone) to its most basic and heartbreaking elements. It is so simple, and so quiet, but it is a tough sonofabitch—Eastwood’s camera stares through moments when most movies flinch. There’s no easy sentimentality here, and when the film arrives at its tragic conclusion, it is overwhelming not in its emotion (though there’s a surplus of that), but in its inevitability. When Sean tells Whitey that the dead girl is his friend’s daughter, Whitey remarks, “He’s in for a world of hurt.” He has no idea.
When Mystic River hit theaters in 2003, Eastwood was coming off a bit of a hit-and-miss patch as a filmmaker, with a string of films based on bestsellers (Absolute Power, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, True Crime, Blood Work) meeting with unspectacular box office and critical notices. Mystic River marked the beginning of his most recent renaissance; he followed it with such critical and financial successes as Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Gran Torino. Seven years later, it remains a towering achievement in the Eastwood filmography—a quiet masterpiece, filled with tremendous performances and skillful filmmaking.