Worth A Look: 20.3%
Pretty Bad: 14.36%
Total Crap: 5.45%
12 reviews, 130 user ratings
by David Hollands
****WARNING: This review contains spoilers throughout.****Mystic River is a sad thing indeed: a film that begins well and then slowly spirals down until it becomes a mess of melodramatic theatrics, plodding scenes, and embarrassing moments of extreme coincidence and convenience.
"A river leading to a sewage plant."
The film starts when two childhood friends, Jimmy and Sean, witness the abduction of their buddy Dave. Flash-forward many years, and we find that the three friends are married and living in the same area. Jimmy has done time in prison, but has reformed himself and lives with a large family. Sean has become a police officer. Dave, unfortunately, never fully recovered from his kidnapping experience, and has become an emotionally unstable man. Jimmy's daughter Katie suddenly turns up murdered, and thus begins a drama as Jimmy seeks vengeance for the murder, Sean attempts to find the killer with his partner Sgt. Powers, and Dave becomes a suspect when he returns home the night of the murder covered in his and someone else's blood.
First, the good about the film. Unlike so many other films that throw non-stop depressing situations at its characters, director Eastwood is much more disciplined. Since he seems to understand that being depressing is 1) the easiest thing to pull off and 2) non-stop depression becomes boring quickly, he has given the movie a slow pace that makes the rather heavy incidents come off as interesting and worthy of an audiences' involvement. Eastwood has scenes of powerful dramatic impact, which he then follows with lighter scenes usually involving Sean and Sgt. Powers. The scene transitions between the lighter scenes and the extremely dark scenes are beautifully handled, and one definite positive one can say about Mystic River is that it never suffers from tone problems.
For the first half of the movie, Eastwood paces the movie deliberately, though not to the extent where an audience member would become bored. His set-up of the material is first-rate. His choices of particular shots and scene executions effortlessly draw us into the story, and keep us locked within. Even an emotionally wrecked Jimmy screaming to the heavens when realising that his daughter has died is powerful. Eastwood obviously loves actors, and he photographs every scene here in a way that makes us subtly effected by the choice of the camera movements or angles, rather than noticing the camerabatics first and foremost.
Every actor here is at the top of his/her game. Even the supporting parts have a life to them. Sean Penn gives a strong, intense performance. So many scenes could have easily dissolved into endless shouting from his character, though we can tell that he has the discipline not to do this. Penn starts immediately with the character instead of himself, and essential becomes a vessel for the aggravated Jimmy. It's easily some of his best work. Just as good is Kevin Bacon. Always an entertaining and gifted actor, Bacon jumps into his role with a calm ease that never distracts. He downplays his role perfectly, and even injects a wonderful charm into his performance that never seems cocky or self-aware.
In the supporting roles, we have some fantastic work. Laurence Fishburne provides entertainment value as Sgt. Powers. He knows that his role is meant to be the comic relief of sorts, so he makes sure that the mood is lightened effectively when he is in a scene. Yet, during the more serious moments where his character is present, he knows to turn this off so as not to cause an audience to be thrown off by a tonal shift. Laura Linney, an actor of amazing talent, gives a great performance as Annabeth, Jimmy's wife. Even though her role is minor, she still plays it convincingly. She even manages to lift a horrible scene near the end of the film up a notch, because she actually manages to make the ridiculous dialogue in that moment more than it is. Finally, Tim Robbins deserves all the praise he can get for his role as Dave. His performance is almost sublime. For most of the movie, I'd forgotten it was Tim Robbins. His sense of control is incredible, and he draws the audience in constantly even threw his body language. It's incredible to watch.
Some individual moments in the film hit home as well. In the beginning of the movie, a moment in which Jimmy, Dave and Sean lose a ball down a manhole serves as a melancholy reminder of the loss of childhood innocence. Later in the film, a moment when Dave refuses to help his son search for the many balls the three friends lost down the manhole also resonates. Essentially, Dave lost his innocence around the same time the ball was lost, and him almost afraid of finding it again, or maybe even him being unable to find it again, is very affecting. Also, Dave seems to be a sad reminder that a world during and after childhood is a frightening thing; that Dave never seemed to have been able to accept that darkness is what leads him to his ultimate fate of living without a real life. Jimmy and Sean are other reminders. Sean has become cynical about life, still a child inside a man's body, though what we may see if a child knew what an adult knows. With this theme in place throughout, the fact that Jimmy's daughter was only nineteen at the time of her death, resonates with an even larger emotional impact when we know that she experienced the dark side of life without ever having a chance to really know it existed. When we see who her killers turn out to be, we see how innocence can be easily broken, and that is what makes the fisrt half of the movie truly tragic and meaningful.
That's where my praise ends. Eastwood makes a fatal mistake when it comes to the who-done-it aspect of the story. As soon as we enter that part of the film, we immediately hear a voice-over 911 call. The fact that one can recognise that the voice is that of a young child's should be obvious to anyone. The even more obvious fact that Eastwood chooses to omit two very specific characters for most of the movie should have anyone guessing the identity of the murderer as soon as he/she appears onscreen. That's a bad thing to do, especially considering that one can guess this even before the first hour of the movie is up. With another hour to go, with many scenes devoted to finding the killer, the audience is way too far ahead of the characters to stay emotionally invested in the story. We become bored, and quite frankly surprised at how clumsy things are being handled.
Eastwood's direction also begins to falter. The second half of the movie is too laid back to get our tempo moving. Eastwood sticks with his laid-back style even at the point when the movie really needs to be building intensity. Because his style is so calm, reminding actually of Sofia Coppola's direction in Lost in Translation, the audience almost starts becoming sleepy while all the plot points are unfolding. There's just no drive; at this point, Eastwood doesn't do enough with the camerabatics and the editing to keep us interested. Staying involved with the characters and story becomes a chore. You'll be desperate for this one hundred and thirty minute beast to end as fast as possible. The fact that it is also about fifteen minutes too long certainly doesn't help.
The screenplay by Brian Helgeland is extremely flawed. There are many plots and subplots going on in this film, and it seems that more simplicity really would have helped in this case. If some of the plots were dropped, this could have been a much leaner, and much better film. In the mean time, we have some real stinkers in terms of poorly developed scenes. For example, when Jimmy vows revenge on his daughter's killer, we then leave this subplot entirely. Then, we are re-united much later on in the film when Jimmy gets an update from his buddies that they have gotten nowhere. However, the police have made lots of progress in the case, so not only is the lack of development in that subplot distracting and very annoying, but it's also pointless. Another subplot that also should have been jettisoned is the one involving Sean's wife. We learn that she left Sean, and yet still calls him almost every day. However, she says nothing, and Sean is only met with dead air. The symbolism here is so obvious, it's almost insulting. Plus, Eastwood's choice to never show her face just comes off as extremely silly: like Alfred Hitchcock with fifty percent less IQ, actually. It's a Silence of the Lambs-type situation. Sean must solve the case in order to redeem himself and his personal problems. Once the case is solved, surprise, Sean's wife speaks to him and returns to his side. Heh.
Then, we have the off-putting out of character moments. During an interrogation scene, Dave suddenly speaks out against his friend in a very confident manner, which completely betrays his set-up as an introverted, psychologically unstable man. He becomes extremely defensive when others confront him with accusations, and yet in this interrogation scene, he is perfectly composed. The only hint of the Dave we knew before is his voice. This change of character only seems clumsily inserted for no reason at all. That no one caught this shows that this film was probably a rush job. Also, Jimmy's character is extremely flawed. For most of the film, he wants to find his daughter's killer, and his careful character is completely betrayed come the conclusion. Basically, he goes off the word of one person who isn't even one hundred percent sure, and confronts his best friend Dave with accusations of murder. He also intends on doing something even more sinister to Dave. Huh? I find that extremely hard to believe.
Suspension of disbelief is something I always carry into the cinema with me. It's helped me get through a lot of films. However, suspension of disbelief doesn't really apply to Mystic River, because from the style and execution of the material, we know it's supposed to be taken as a thriller that represents real life. Thus, some things in the movie really stretch credibility. For one thing, get this: Sean and Sgt. Powers conveniently forget about the 911 tape. They both assumed that the other had listened to it. Clumsy. But then get this: the answer that breaks the case wide open is on that tape. Essentially, there would have been no movie if that extremely convenient plot point wasn't in the film. The actual execution of that scene doesn't even try to hide the fact that it's using extreme convenience to push the film along when it hadn't done that before. Sample dialogue: "What's on the 911 tape?" 'I thought you'd listened to it.' "I thought you had." Makes me want to vomit, honestly.
Then, some other nagging questions begin to pop up. How come, when Dave is the prime suspect, they never give him a lie detector test, and yet they put Brendan Harris, a secondary suspect, through one earlier in the film? What are the odds that the body of a pedophile that was put in Dave's trunk had the exact same blood type as Jimmy's daughter, conveniently making Dave a prime suspect? In fact, Dave is nothing but one Heck of an obvious red herring throughout the entire film. That immediately doesn't work, because Dave is in the foreground as a suspect so much, that it couldn't possibly be him. However, the movie puts him in that spotlight for nearly its entire running time, and we're already aware, just because we can figure things out for ourselves based on the other plot elements, that he isn't the murderer. The fact that he kills a pedophile the same night as the murder, around the exact same time, is hard enough to swallow; yet when that pedophile's body is only found after Jimmy has gone through with his revenge just shows that the filmmakers wanted to provide a "shocking" (read: dramatically obvious) conclusion for the characters above actually thinking the material through in intelligent ways. Finally, Sean not doing anything about what Jimmy does in the end completely goes against his character as well. Jeez, and this film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Screenplay. Hell, whether you believe it in or not, must be freezing over at this point.
I will admit that I was slightly impressed by Tom Stern's cinematography, yet most of the movie is shot with huge shadows engulfing almost everything in the frame. Any scene taking place at night in the movie requires night vision goggles, for crying out loud. Plus, the visuals are quite distracting. This is a film that is supposed to represent gritty reality. However, just like Curtis Hanson's horrifically awful 8 Mile, that sense of gritty reality is constantly undermined by the overly glossy cinematography. Stern employs that high-contrast, deep-shadow look that has become inexplicably popular these days. While not being as horrible as the high-contrast photography in Zack Snyder's Dawn of the Dead, it comes pretty close. Sometimes, the extreme whites in the image will even hurt your eyes and cause you to squint. There are only a few moments when I found myself buying into the visual look. One has a highlight of white shining across Dave's face while he is telling his son a story of a boy escaping from wolves. That was a haunting moment. Anytime the camera pans up to a highly-contrasted sky...well, I nearly went blind. Extremely disappointing, and let's hope Eastwood doesn't continue to buy into this look come his following films.
The editing by Joel Cox is pretty good, for the most part. There are smooth transitions throughout, and most of the scenes don't appear too choppy. However, there are some sequences where the editing really starts to show. During Dave's interrogation, one is aware of every single cut. Either Cox cuts too slowly from character to character, or he cuts too fast. Either way, it takes away from the scene. Then, there are the moments when Dave's reckoning at the hands of Jimmy are inter-cut with the killer being taken down. Every time we cut away from those scenes, we lose interest in the scene we were just watching. We also notice that following the laws of time really wasn't on Cox's mind when he cut the conclusion, and that means we are constantly distracted. However, despite these moments, the cutting is pretty sharp, yet we can usually see faint scissor marks in the image at times, almost indicating a rush job. Not enough to completely wreck the film, though still enough to distract in spots.
Clint Eastwood composed the score for the film himself. It is awful. The music is off-putting wherever it's used. When Jimmy yells about his daughter's death, overly sappy music (that actually sounds happy for some reason) fills our ears, and completely shatters the emotion of the scene. It's almost a blessing that Eastwood decided to use so little of his music throughout the film, because what he does it for essentially ruins whatever it's supposed to be complementing. Horrific work that I hope never makes it to CD racks, because that would be like listening to a screeching, wet cat for two hours.Mystic River is an extremely clumsy film. It had me interested in the proceedings for a while, and yet that was completely ruined when all the plot stupidities and extreme contrivances reared their ugly heads. Director Eastwood must have fallen asleep while helming the second half, because it feels lazy, and there isn't a smidgen of tension to be found. The performances are excellent, which did keep me watching until the end. However, if it weren't for the performances, the movie wouldn't even play on HBO. This film is, sadly, a river that I never want to have to swim in again.
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originally posted: 01/13/05 15:18:32
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