Eastwood soaks `Mystic River' in dead-on earnestness


October 15, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

If you want to see an interminable message movie - the message is, revenge does not pay - Mystic River is for you.

The director, Clint Eastwood, doesn't want anyone to miss the importance of his theme: He spells it out in block letters, repeatedly, then drops it on the audience's head. He stages scenes as if he were a schoolteacher going through his lessons with a pointer; early on he puts the corpse of a 19-year-old girl inside a circle, as if to say "X marks the spot." The score he wrote for the movie includes a mournful heavenly choir courtesy of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. If Eastwood's luck holds, it'll make for one dirge-like Oscar night.

He turns his actors into message carriers. Sean Penn, as a working-class Boston ex-con whose favorite daughter is murdered, spends most of the movie in a state of arrested explosion. Eastwood, in his didactic, determined-to-be-powerful mode, moves his camera in on Penn rather than back up. In many scenes, Eastwood reduces whole masses of extras to blurry, generalized emotions so Penn's anger-streaked paternal pride or gushing grief never loses center stage.

Kevin Bacon as Penn's childhood friend, now investigating the murder for the Massachusetts State Troopers, and Laurence Fishburne as Bacon's partner, lay back during an interrogation as if to see who can suck more oxygen out of the room: Penn or his totally supportive wife, Laura Linney. When one talks, the other's eyes bulge to bursting.

At least you can tell what they see in each other, which, for all of Eastwood's obviousness, is not always the case with the couples in this tale of several tangled households. The creepiest shots in the movie are the close-ups of Bacon's estranged wife - actually, only of her lips - calling him from pay phones in Manhattan and staying silent until he says those magic words of reconciliation, "I'm sorry for putting it all on you." Why couldn't she turn out to be the murderer?

The third boyhood buddy who figures into this highfalutin' melodrama is Tim Robbins' shambling ne'er-do-well, who was kidnapped by two fake cops in front of his pals at age 11 and then sexually abused for four days. The "existential" part of the movie comes from Penn and Bacon contemplating how life would have turned out if either of them had gotten into the pedophiles' car.

Robbins sees Penn's daughter at a bar minutes before she's killed, then comes home to wife Marcia Gay Harden covered in blood. He says he's beaten a mugger to the point of death, but Eastwood keeps everyone, including Harden, unsure of his veracity. Although she dresses his wounds and disposes of his gore-soaked clothes, the nervous desperation that darts around her eyes and mouth signal almost immediately that this spouse is what used to be called "a weak sister." As Sylvio once said on The Sopranos, "Sadness accrues."

At least Robbins has one scene in which to show off his comic timing during a Q&A with the cops - and by then, midway through, viewers are so starved for a laugh that his crack deadpan delivery brings down the house. (Eli Wallach, who co-starred with Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 37 years ago, also wakes up the crowd with his exultant theatricality as a spry old liquor-store owner.) But too often Robbins is as blubbery as Penn is prone to paroxysm. Robbins loses his footing as an actor even before his character flashes back to his childhood torture.

Fishburne, often a hambone himself, must have looked at these histrionics and gotten a clue what not to do; he wisely reigns himself in. He and Bacon (when he isn't flashing wet-eyed looks at his tragic buddies) drive the investigative part of the movie with their electric professionalism.

Eastwood and his screenwriter, Brian Helgeland (who co-wrote the note-perfect L.A. Confidential with Curtis Hanson), handle the police-procedural details and mystery plot fairly crisply. It's the human drama that is cringe-worthy. The bits that seem embarrassing in the trailer - such as Penn saying that he couldn't cry for his daughter, and Robbins pointing out that he's crying now - are just as forced in context.

It could be that moviegoers and critics are so sick of stylized violence and thrill games that they're thankful for this movie's dead-on earnestness. But Eastwood's blatancy is numbing. The crosses glittering from one child molester's ring finger and neck, the framing image of the boys' names carved in a sidewalk square of concrete - these are signs of directorial banality, not mastery. Mystic River wants to be a Bruce Springsteen-like anthem of life and death in blue-collar America. It's no more than a doggerel rendition of poetic injustice.

Mystic River

Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Rated R

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 140 minutes

Sun Score **

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