Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a somber evocation of a poor, close-knit section of Boston on the brink of moral collapse. Not only is the film the director’s best work since his undervalued A Perfect World, it’s also one of the most spiritually profound works to come out of the Hollywood studio system in quite some time. Mystic River shares more than a passing resemblance to Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams. Both take place in god-forsaken milieus and feature Sean Penn playing the vigilante cowboy when the judicial system fails its characters or doesn’t do its job quick enough. But where Iñárritu’s frenetic style repeatedly betrays the inherent gravitas of his story, Eastwood sorts through the rubble of his characters’ lives with an assurance and patience that’s reminiscent of his better works.
Eastwood’s mystical tour through the film’s Boston town begins in the past, when a boy is stripped of his innocence by two wolves in sheep’s clothing. A “world of hurt” passes into the boy, similar to the legacy of pain that befalls ex-con gangster Jimmy Markum (Penn) when his teenage daughter is found brutally murdered in the present. Jimmy’s childhood friend Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is the homicide detective who investigates the possible involvement of their friend Dave (Tim Robbins) in the crime. Eastwood is very much concerned with the disintegration of society and the human spirit, perfectly expressed in the transition between the film’s idyllic past and hopeless, gentrified present. Just as the fates of the film’s three leads are forever tied by a horrifying event, there’s an overwhelming feeling here that the death of one person could mean destruction for the entire town.
Many scenes in Mystic River begin or end with Eastwood’s camera tilting toward the sky or looking down at its procedural. He observes the horrors of these people’s lives like the somber Mystic River that haunts the film’s periphery. If the film has an obvious cross to bear, there’s no denying the god-like nature of Eastwood’s gaze. There’s a distinct tenor to Eastwood’s films and Mystic River‘s rhythm comes alive via a series of lyrical parallelisms. As a child, Dave got into a car with two men posing as authority figures: a police officer and a priest. History tragically repeats itself when an older Dave gets into a car with Jimmy’s thugs. Eastwood clearly believes that youth is holy and he uses this visual repetition to evoke Dave’s eternal damnation. More hopeful: a boy’s physical disability (his muteness) is compared to the emotional unavailability of Sean’s wife.
The performances are phenomenal across the board: Robbins never contrives schmaltz from his character’s arrested development; a haunted Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave’s perpetually frazzled wife, brings to mind a soul lost in limbo; and Penn’s hurt is sure to bring Academy voters to tears. The film has its ciphers (namely Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth) and its fair share of summarizing speeches—but even when it appears as if Eastwood has given up on his characters for a series of red herrings, the lyrical editing of the film’s Shakespearean last act plays into the schematic idea that the film’s characters are merely fulfilling a predetermined prophesy of hurt. If Dogville is a ravishing autopsy of American terrorism, Mystic River is a heart-wrenching act of worship: a holy observance of the way evil spreads like a pestilence (specifically referred to as vampirism in the film) from the past into the present.
This is a tough transfer. The deliberately washed-out, sometimes blown-out interiors are still gorgeous to look at, but this effect seems to perpetuate the occasional edge enhancement; also, some distracting shimmering effects are noticeable during exterior scenarios. Still, this is an excellent transfer, featuring deep blacks, excellent shadow delineation, and accurate skin tones. The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround track is even better: Sean Penn's primal scream will send chills up your spine and Clint Eastwood's beautiful score has a way of seductively sneaking up on you.
On disc one you get a commentary track by a jokey Tim Robbins (he calls the film Mystic Pizza, then Pizza River) and Kevin Bacon. There's a lot of downtime here but the actors' understanding of the material is profound, from the effects of history on the present to the overall aesthetic. Robbins repeatedly compliments the day players (in addition to Marcia Gay Harden) but it's Bacon who provides the single most insightful moment. Praising the screenplay, he describes how Brian Helgeland beautifully condensed an entire portion from Dennis Lehane's novel (a scene detailing the deteriorated relationship between the young boys after the kidnapping) into one single scene. That the scene works so well is a testament to both Lehane and Eastwood's talents. Disc two begins with the 22-minute "Mystic River: Beneath the Surface," a run-of-the-mill behind-the-scenes featurette that's dignified in the end by the classy direction and presentation. Less satisfying overall (and considerably shorter) is "Mystic River: From Page to Screen"; despite the title of the featurette, Helgeland appears very little throughout. Far more satisfying are no less than three Charlie Rose episodes: two October 2003 episodes, one with Clint Eastwood and a second with Tim Robbins, and a December 2003 chat with Kevin Bacon. Rounding out disc two is the film's theatrical and teaser trailer. Pop in disc three and enjoy Eastwood's score, with Lennie Niehaus conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus.
For a much-hyped three-disc set, this Mystic River package is a little disappointing, but who cares when the film is this good?