Mystic River

Mystic River (15)

There is a Shakespearian feel to Mystic River, for this is a movie where villains are born, innocents are slaughtered and good people are trampled as evil breeds just as surely as bacteria multiplies in a drop of water.

That it comes from the directorial hand of Clint Eastwood is impressive. That it is so impressive, so memorable, so incredibly, unforgettably dark, grim and gritty, is perhaps rather more surprising. Here Eastwood has created the movie of his 33-year directing career – a magnificent ensemble drama in which every star fires on all cylinders, and which says much for Eastwood’s minimalist, no-fuss style of filmmaking.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River consider the paths followed by three childhood pals – Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) – after one of them is kidnapped and repeatedly raped by pederasts posing as cops.

Many years later their disparate lives are smashed together again when one of their children is murdered. Now very different adults with little in common except their shared childhood, all three men will be changed forever by the experiences to come.

Both a throwback to the great movie stories of the past and a gripping, violent contemporary thriller, Mystic River is a whodunit built on hearsay, rage, suspicion and revenge.

Top of the heap in a magnificent cast (which also includes Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney) is Sean Penn as a former crook turned shopkeeper whose latent rage and instinct for vigilantism is thrust powerfully to the fore when his daughter is killed.

Throw in a creepy, low-key performance from Robbins as the damaged child-rape victim and Bacon’s straight-man role as the by-the-book detective investigating the case while simultaneously keeping his old pals close and at arm’s length, and this rapidly becomes a masterclass in film acting.

Nevertheless it is Penn who delivers the knockout– a multi-layered showcase of the invisible mechanics of acting for the movies that takes in grief, fury and vengeance but, at the same time, makes Jimmy so much more than just another tattooed, pistol-packing thug.

Standing over his teenage daughter’s wretched corpse in the morgue he utters “I know in my soul I contributed to your death, but I don’t know how,” – a father’s inestimable grief and guilt given voice by a man desperately seeking sanity in a waking nightmare. There is Oscar glory to be had here, and 2004 may well be Penn’s year.

Given the task of co-ordinating so many powerhouse performers, Eastwood does it by splitting his picture into separate vignettes. Consequently this is an ensemble cast where everybody shines. Plaudits should also go to the casting director who decided 6ft 5ins Robbins should play Dave – a train wreck of a human being whose life has stood still since that horrible moment when he climbed into a fake police car. Robbins plays it with his eyes – the entire performance is there; the silent scream of the child. It is so awful it’s brilliant.

If there are awkward moments they are few and forgivable. Linney is given an icy, Lady Macbeth moment towards the film’s denouement, while a comic sequence featuring an elderly liquor store owner named Looney (87-year-old Eli Wallach, uncredited) breaks the tension.

Still, there is majesty here, most of it coming via the electrifying talent of Sean Penn, surely the uncrowned King of Modern American Cinema. Somebody give this man an Oscar.

Star rating: *****

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