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The International Writers Magazine
: Film Review: DVD

Mystic River
Dan Schneider

It is a truism in the world of soap opera (the purest form of modern melodrama) that the characters must always do the dumbest possible thing to propel the story forward. While this is not egregious in melodrama, it is so in drama. Yet, a large portion of film today is pure melodrama. I think of highly lauded films like Michael Mann’s Heat as melodrama incarnate.

Another truism in regard to films is that actors turned directors tend to not be very good. Mel Gibson, Ron Howard, and Kevin Costner (Academy Award winners in direction) come to mind, as does Clint Eastwood (another Oscar winner). Perhaps the only actor-cum-director who has proven his chops artistically, though, is Woody Allen, although he was really a stand up comedian, not an actor. Actors tend to direct very ham-handedly, with static camera work, and no real sense of film’s visual aspect, and even less skill at understanding what constitutes good story structure. Eastwood is very much in this vein. In his highly lauded Mystic River Eastwood shows that he has everything it takes to direct tv movies of the week, but not serious art. This film is larded with poorly framed scenes, bad lighting, very pedestrian angles, color-strained, as well as bad performances, a horridly unrealistic script, banal music, and too many red herrings.

The tale opens in the 1970's when three boys- Jimmy Markum, Sean Devine, and Dave Boyle- are confronted by a couple of pedophiles. Dave is abducted, and subjected to four days of torture and sodomy, but escapes. Fade to black. A quarter-century later all three men are still living in the same poor Irish section of Boston, yet are no longer friends, and have had separate lives that rarely intersect. Dave (Tim Robbins) is a basket case married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), who has a son, Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who owns a corner store and is in deep with low level gangsters, while Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective, paired with a –guess what? - black partner (Laurence Fishburne) named Whitey- I kid you not!

Jimmy incestually lusts for his 19 year old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), who is murdered. It turns out she was dating the son of a former criminal cohort who ratted on him, and whom he murdered after he got out of jail. Jimmy had barred Katie from seeing the boy, yet felt bad enough about killing his old pal that he sends $500 a month from Brooklyn, via criminal friends, pretending to be the murdered con. Sean is soon on the case and Jimmy is telling him that he better find his daughter’s killer first, or he will.
  Meanwhile, the night Katie disappears Dave ends up killing a pedophile he catches with a teenaged male prostitute, and his hands are bloodied. He is immediately suspected of Katie’s murder by Celeste, and compounds her suspicion by assorted unrealistic quirkiness, as well as frustrating the cops, who think him guilty. Except for Sean, who eventually tracks down the murder to a gun used by Jimmy’s murdered associate, throwing suspicion back on Katie’s boyfriend. The boyfriend then confronts his mute brother and the mute’s bung buddy, as it turns out they accidentally killed Katie, then called 911.

Of course, as the murder is being solved, Jimmy and his goombahs harass and murder Dave, forcing him to falsely confess to Katie’s murder. He could have easily saved his life by not getting in the car with the goombahs in broad daylight, or by simply telling Jimmy where the ped he killed was buried. And what wife would turn in her obviously mentally ill husband to a known thug like Jimmy, rather thanthe police- one of whom is a friend.

Having grown up in a similar milieu, this is wholly unrealistic behavior, but totally necessary to propel the tale along. Dave is so obviously a red herring that we know he didn’t kill Katie, but the fact that the mute boy and his bung buddy are the killers, is so deus ex machina in reverse that it is wholly unfair to the viewer. Not to mention that we are told their killing of the girl was just accidental gunplay, yet the body of Katie was badly abused. Huh? Major continuity error.

At the end of the film, after Sean tells Jimmy they’ve caught Katie’s killers and need to speak to Dave re: the ped’s body they’ve found, he realizes Jimmy’s wasted Dave. Yet, although he was willing to bust Dave over Katie’s murder, Sean will not bust Jimmy over Dave’s? Even Celeste, it seems, bears no ill will toward Jimmy, presumably because he was a nutcase she finked on. A parade ends the film as all the characters look grimly to the future, but not before two wholly inappropriate, and ridiculous touches are added. The first is the final recurrence of Sean’s ex-wife’s bizarrely prank calling him. What this has to do with the plot, save for show that Sean has a life outside this case, is beyond me. Even more painful is a scene where, as Jimmy rues his murder of Dave, his wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) seduces him with an unintendedly funny speechlet, failing to surmount poetry, about his murder of Dave being justified for he is a king (ascended from ex-con storeowner to Mob boss in mere days), and merely doing what kings do- i.e.- being despotic, as he bare-chested, flexes his tattooed pecs and biceps in something of a Kirk Douglas Lite. The speechlet is bad Shakespearean wannabe pulp, and comes from a character who does nothing for the bulk of the film, then rages from depths apparently stolen from a film where its barking might seem deep. Also, Robbins, as an idiot savant type, has a bizarre rage scene where he compares himself to a vampire. Yet, given his past is known to Jimmy and Sean, why not just come clean over the ped killing? No real reason is given, because it follows the melodrama rule of allowing stupidity to dictate the tale, and throw him as the red herring murder suspect.

Such is the acting. After first seeing it, I thought the acting was solid, although nor enough to justify Oscars for Robbins and Penn. Yet, in reflection, it was cookie cutter emoting- not acting. For example, Penn’s breakdown, earlier in this film, over finding out his daughter’s dead has none of the emotional resonance of the breakdown of his character in Woody Allen’s Sweet And Lowdown because there a comic tale urns serious at the end, when we’ve sympathized with a character that refrains emotion, while Penn’s Jimmy, in Mystic River, is an emotional idiot from the get go.

There are some nice touches- like abused Dave’s name drying half-finished in the cement, but they are too little in depth and too few. More often the script, by Brian Helgeland, merely allows wallowing for the actors, and denies them any real chance to show real emotion. Like the poor In The Bedroom, Mystic River had a chance to be an adult meditation on grief, rather than a plot reject from a 1970s cop tv show like Kojack or Starsky And Hutch.

The basic problem is that most moviegoers simply do not understand nor appreciate good writing- everything is homogenized down into a lowest common denominator plot mulch. I’ve read other critics state that Eastwood is a jazzy director, in that he tends to just riff. Well, maybe so in other films but in this one he’s at his Director’s 101 worst. The film is dull and predictable, and the acting is forgettable- certainly not indelible. You know this when there is nothing unique about a performance and any other actor could have pulled off the part. So it is with the three main characters.

As for the DVD? Not a single extra- not even a trailer. The film transfer seems ok, yet, given the muddied nature of much of the lighting, it’s just my guess. Take a pass on this latest entry in unworthy, unpoetic Oscar nominations, unless you just can’t live without seeing Sean Penn’s tattoos.
Dan Schneider - March 2005

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