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Mystic River

Dennis Lehane has been known to write some fairly compelling mystery novels so when we heard that Clint Eastwood, with the help of L.A. Confidential adaptive writer Brian Helgeland, was crafting one of his books for the screen and it would star Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Kevin Bacon, we were interested in checking it out. It took us awhile because we're never that eager to see movies involving abused children no matter how good they're reported to be but once Robbins, who usually seems to make sure he's involved with pretty good stuff, won the Oscar, the movie finally came to the godforsaken place where we catch most of our films so we figured it was time to gut it out. We weren't disappointed and found a film that was as suspenseful as it was well acted. 

Mystic River is the story of three childhood friends growing up in blue collar Boston who's lives are altered by an abduction and sexual molestation. The story picks up thirty or so years later in the same neighborhood when they are all grown up and no longer friends but still see each other around. They seem to have gone their separate ways after the incident and now Bacon is a homicide detective, Robbins is a molestation victim and suspect, and Penn is an ex con and the father of the murdered girl. The triangulation is neatly set and fraught with the undertones of who they were, the incident that changed all their lives together, and who they have become.

The acting in the film is excellent of course with Penn as his usual intense self, which, in this case, finally seems somehow appropriate. Robbins is good as well although at times he comes off on screen as a little too haunted, or too intensely emotional to the point were it becomes distracting. It's a tough call to criticize him for this of course because obviously how haunted one would be in his circumstances would differ to a person but a filmgoer can only judge by what doesn't feel natural and whether or not one finds themselves aware of the acting as they sit in the theater. And despite the opinion of "the Academy" which rewarded Robbins with a best supporting actor Oscar, there were a few times when Robbins seemed to be Robbins acting instead of a real person agonizing over the hand fate dealt him. A role like this represents the ultimate challenge of the craft of course and the minor glitches that we felt in his performance didn't detract from this movie much at all. And it could be that it was only noticeable because of the stellar performances Robbins was playing off of in the scenes, namely Marcia Gay Harden who is excellent as his wife and Penn who, when it comes to intensity, is likely to make anyone pale by comparison. 

Among all the film's great performances however, Bacon's detective seemed to us to rise above the rest. Since he's known more as a utilitarian actor then a leading man, he's not likely to get recognized and rewarded but, while his role is not nearly as theatrically demanding, there is something about Bacon's Sean that seems very humane and decent, yet he makes it clear in very subtle ways that turmoil lies just beneath the surface. His interactions with partner Whitey played by Laurence Fishburne are perfect and the chemistry between partners comes off so flawlessly that you feel like they may actually have been working the beat together for years. It could be however, that the reason we found Bacon's performance more uplifting than the others, is that his was the only character who seemed to be on any sort of upswing by the time story concluded.

Director Eastwood has done well to completely entrench this movie into the city of Boston and creates a mysterious and gloomy neighborhood feel as the suspense mounts and epiphany looms. The cinematography and music are appropriately creepy and the actors south Boston accents authentic sounding. The film is suspenseful to the end as well, complete with red herrings and final twists. By the film's conclusion, the lives of the characters and the neighborhood in which they live, have been completely exhumed to reveal the secrets that have been hiding there. The wives, Harden, and staff favorite Laura Linney (left) who plays Penn's wife, have shown themselves to be flawed characters as well and the resolutions that have worked themselves out seem realistic and in tune with the hard facts of the lives that these characters have had to endure. The way Lehane and Eastwood have created a multi layered mystery and intertwined it with family dynamics, long friendships and rivalries, Irish Catholic pride, blue collar values, and the violent twists and turns that sometimes result, is masterful to behold and a tribute to both good mystery writing and screen adaptation. Mystic River is one of the better films in it's genre because it avoids clichés and chooses to explore the gritty realities of life instead of zipping everything up neat and tidy in the body bag that most films use to tug at your emotions.

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