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Mark Dujsik
10-19-2003, 09:09 PM
An apprehensive cross between an elegiac tone poem of loss, an ever-twisting murder mystery, and a character study revolving around the regret of lost innocence, Mystic River tries to be all of these things and ends up falling short on all counts. The main problem is that the movie never finds strength in any of its dramatic permutations and consequently leaves one distanced from the proceedings. Scenes of raw emotion and lyricism feel more like technical exercises than representations of the reality of the story. The imbalance lasts for the entire running time, and by the climax, when Brian Helgeland's script finally takes focus, it is on the mystery, easily the most pedestrian strand of the movie that seems even more uninspired because of a lack of development in all narrative departments. And after its strongest point and elimination of the mystery, the movie's denouement again suffers from the central problem. The movie is, admittedly, a noteworthy technical accomplishment, finding strength in the majority of its performances and Clint Eastwood's cohesive direction of uneven material.

As children growing up in Boston, Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) were close friends, spending their days playing sports in the street. One day, though, they decide to write their names in wet cement, and a man disguised as a cop takes Dave away in the back of his car. Four days later, Dave escapes from captivity in a basement. Twenty-five years later, the three of them have parted ways. Jimmy is married to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and owns and runs a local convenience store. Dave is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and they have a young son. Sean is now a cop. Jimmy's eldest daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is going out on the town to celebrate with her friends, but she never returns home. Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are called in to investigate, and Jimmy, after seeing a group of squad cars, arrives at the scene as well out of curiosity. Katie's body is discovered, the victim of a vicious murder. The three friends are drawn together once again, Jimmy slowly turning his grief into thoughts of retributions, Dave hiding a secret from everyone, and Sean trying to find the killer before Jimmy and his thugs seek justice of their own.

At this point in the movie, the characters have been developed about as far as they will be for the remainder of the story. The cast does what they can with the simplified characters, and they make distinct choices that display the clear understanding they have of their characters. Sean Penn work to great effect, believably moving from devastated to determined, which is vitally important to make the climax of the movie plausible and within his character's bounds. Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne successfully play it low key in the midst of the more grandiose emotions and gestures around them. Tim Robbins work stands out, partially because his character is the only one who has any depth to him. We have a knowledge of his history from the start and find ourselves clinging to him after it's clear the other characters' development ends once the inciting incident occurs. Robbins captures the essence of this timid man, lost within his own mind, continuously haunted by his past, and now trapped in lie after lie to hide something from his friends and family. The women, by comparison, do not fare nearly as well. Marcia Gay Harden's character is merely the damsel in distress, and Laura Linney stands idly by in the background until the end when she gives a clumsily written and unprovoked speech.

Helgeland's screenplay troubles extend much further than the characters, although it should be noted that the weak characterizations highlight the other problems. After learning of Katie's murder, it's odd how disconnected from the onscreen grief we actually are. At first, it seems a choice on Eastwood's part, perhaps to emphasize the senselessness of the crime, but as the characters continue to mourn, it becomes clear that our distance from their pain is a direct result of our inability to empathize with character outlines disguised as actual characters. Soon enough, the mystery behind the homicide slowly begins to take focus, breaking us off even more. There are obvious themes being struck at here, but again, without a connection to these people, there's no emotional impact behind them. Eastwood repeats certain motifs throughout the movie, most importantly shots of a man moving down a road away from the camera. It happens near the beginning with young Dave being taken away by his kidnappers and is repeated two more times. Call it fate or inevitability in regards to making one wrong decision, but once more, there's nothing tangible in which to relate it. Eastwood and Helgeland do manage to hit home the theme of the vicious circular nature of violence, and it might actually play stronger because of detachment.

By the time Mystic River arrives at the key moment when that theme is stressed, the murder mystery has fallen apart at the seams. Coincidences run rampant, and the sequence of events that lead to the tragic climax is based entirely on the ineptitude of the detectives, both of whom think the other has examined what turns out to be the key piece of evidence. For all of its virtues, there's something missing from the heart of Mystic River for which no amount of quality cinematography, editing, and acting can substitute.

Copyright 2003 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

Mark Dujsik is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org). His reviews can be seen at Mark Reviews Movies (http://mark-reviews-movies.tripod.com).

Chris Knipp
11-01-2003, 11:52 PM
Well done review. You're harder on the movie than I am. I hadn't realized the extent of character underdevelopment but I think you may be right in the sense that a story where background is made so important needs more foreground too, more of a look at personalities. I admire the movie for its feeling of place and its epic sadness and felt its reverberations for days afterward, but still it indeed has flaws. And that, despite the fact that I too have praised it, has make me wonder why it has met with such universal critical acclaim in this country. What has it got that people need so badly right now that they ignore the shortcomings and simply herald it as a masterpiece? But it has more emotional impact than you seem to think -- you've underestimated that.


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Mark Dujsik
11-02-2003, 01:48 AM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
Well done review. You're harder on the movie than I am. I hadn't realized the extent of character underdevelopment but I think you may be right in the sense that a story where background is made so important needs more foreground too, more of a look at personalities. I admire the movie for its feeling of place and its epic sadness and felt its reverberations for days afterward, but still it indeed has flaws. And that, despite the fact that I too have praised it, has make me wonder why it has met with such universal critical acclaim in this country. What has it got that people need so badly right now that they ignore the shortcomings and simply herald it as a masterpiece? But it has more emotional impact than you seem to think -- you've underestimated that.

First off, thanks.

I'm a little confused by the high praise as well, including one New York periodical (I forgot which, but it's in the commercials) that labeled it "a(n) historic achievement." I expect some big nominations come Oscar time, but I'll probably be left scratching my head (as of now, I do hope Robbins garners a nod for his work in it).

I can see the emotional potential in the film, and I know it's touched some people. Since none of it connected with me, though, I never felt it.

Chris Knipp
11-02-2003, 11:29 AM
Deserved. Have you seen Jonathan Rosenbaum's review -- which I came to last night after writing my comment to you ? http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2003/1003/031024.html
You probably have since I think you're from that area. I don't agree with all he says -- he diagnoses all the country's ills through this one movie -- but he rather brilliantly spells out doubts and suspicions I'd only had glimmerings of. Basically, he thinks the critical raves come from a need to banish our guilt for our national violence by seeing it as inevitable and ourselves as victims of blind fate. It's political. And Clint is not innocent of Dirty Harry sympathies. And Rosenbaum says, as I believe, that we need to pay a lot of attention to all this because Mystic River is, in fact, a very fine movie.



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Mark Dujsik
11-02-2003, 01:53 PM
Originally posted by Chris Knipp
I don't agree with all he says -- he diagnoses all the country's ills through this one movie -- but he rather brilliantly spells out doubts and suspicions I'd only had glimmerings of. Basically, he thinks the critical raves come from a need to banish our guilt for our national violence by seeing it as inevitable and ourselves as victims of blind fate. It's political. And Clint is not innocent of Dirty Harry sympathies. And Rosenbaum says, as I believe, that we need to pay a lot of attention to all this because Mystic River is, in fact, a very fine movie.[/URL]

No, this is the first time I've seen his review. I don't keep up with reviews as much anymore, which is perhaps one of the downsides of writing your own. Then again Rosenbaum certainly keeps up with his fellow critics, so maybe that's my own problem.

Interesting read. It's also clear that the movie affected him, and I understand his feelings of discomfort with the implications of the movie's depiction of revenge. Jimmy was wrong, though, and personally, I was never convinced otherwise. I don't think Annabeth's speech is meant to convince us that he was right, but only meant to show the extent to which people will lie to themselves to keep blood off their own hands. Again, on a character level though, it was never properly motivated enough for me to even know where she's coming from. I like how he hints at the gross underdevelopment of the two main female characters, which accounts for much of the failing of Lady M-esque speech.

Chris Knipp
11-02-2003, 02:32 PM
Again, I agree with you on all of what you say -- particularly about the women --except for one reservation about Jimmy: he is allowed to get away with murder. Of course we know he was wrong, but we also know that he is not punished. That (as I think Rosenbaum is inferring) is an implied indulgence, just as Boyle, as Rosenbaum also points out, is also by implication not guilty for killing the presumed child molester -- though all this gets a bit beyond me eventually because the plot is so terrribly twisted. Besides the questionable revenge, there's also questionable forgiveness, and despite the ironic presence throughout of cops, like Dirty Harry it's all outside the realm of the law.

There are other doubts that I've never fully expressed. I find the cutting back and forth between the killing of Dave Boyle and the interrogation of the true killers artificial and manipulative. I did mention this before, but what is it meant to do or imply? I know only that we're being played with in a too flashy way. I also felt from the first that if Boyle was so permanently maimed by his childhood kidnap/rape experience (and it's quite terrible enough for that to be true), then it's surprising that he's even capable of having a pretty normal family life. You'd expect him to be dead, or in an institution, or a hopeless drifter, or a drunk, or worst of all, and quite possible, a child molester himself, but he's none of those things.

In all our objections now, we may be addressing ourselves to the Dennis Lehane book (which I too haven't read), and insofar as Eastwood is faithful to the book, we can only fault him for selecting it and magnifying it into a powerful movie, when it contains strange questionable assumptions and troubling gaps. I think this (rather than any flaws in plotting and character development revealed in Eastwood's movie) is what Rosenbaum is addressing: the moral and political significance of the choice of this story, and the corresponding significance of the hugely positive critical response to the movie.



www.chrisknipp.com

oscar jubis
11-17-2003, 12:26 AM
I want to register my agreement with comments above regarding Mystic River's many shortcomings and my bafflement at the response from our so-called critics. I've been making sure I don't miss any of the notable one-screen-for-two-weeks films. Finally I tackled this film tonight and came home to realize the extent of the adulation. Apparently all that's required for a movie to be called a masterpiece is an earnest, ambitious effort from an iconic director... and a couple of admirable performances.

The review from our best film critic (BTW, his latest book:"Movie Mutations" is just out) contains evidence of his acuity as social commentator. As a critic, Rosenbaum refuses to overreact: He calls Mystic River "worth seeing", calls Eastwood "a master", and lauds Penn and Robbins while detailing what's wrong with it and what's implied about the characters and about America.

Chris Knipp
11-17-2003, 12:43 AM
As we discussed earlier in this thread, Rosenbaum also discusses the possibly durious political and philosophical implications of Mystic River; to me, that's even more interesting than his restraint in stating its merits.

tabuno
04-17-2005, 12:33 AM
Mark described in his commentary about Mystic River much better that I ever could, a wonderful job! Brilliant explanation about the underbelly of this movie that I am unable to even come close to adding anything to. I just wanted to provide my delight in reading and learning more about what I myself couldn't come to understand about my reaction to this movie. I discovered more because of this review.

Mark Dujsik
05-03-2005, 09:57 PM
Originally posted by tabuno
Mark described in his commentary about Mystic River much better that I ever could, a wonderful job! Brilliant explanation about the underbelly of this movie that I am unable to even come close to adding anything to. I just wanted to provide my delight in reading and learning more about what I myself couldn't come to understand about my reaction to this movie. I discovered more because of this review.

It's been a while since I've been here, but thank you very much for the kind words. It's reaction like this that keeps me going with my writing.

Again, thanks for making my day.