No. 44: “Mystic River” (2003)

“We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.”
~~Jimmy Markum 

As an author, Dennis Lehane is a man of few words, but he makes every one count twice. That’s Clint Eastwood the actor up one side and down the other (even in “Space Cowboys” he didn’t say much). But as a director? That characterization rings just as true, because Eastwood prefers a hands-off, less-direction-is-more approach. He trusts in his actors’ talent and their instincts; he lets them navigate their characters as they choose. Eastwood intuits that, more often than not, the things left unsaid carry more weight than heated confrontations. 

So much goes unsaid in “Mystic River,” Eastwood’s bleak and darkly beautiful adaptation of Lehane’s novel, that the film simmers with tension. There’s an atmosphere of unease about “Mystic River” that never dissipates; by the film’s conclusion, in fact, the unease has grown exponentially. All of the tension has to do with a murder in the past that could have ties to a murder in the present. At the center of “Mystic River” are three old friends: Jimmy (Sean Penn), a father and ex-con now running a corner store; Sean (Kevin Bacon), a detective with the Massachusetts State Police; and Dave (Tim Robbins at his most Oscar-worthy), who ekes out a living with blue-collar work. The three have grown apart because they cannot speak of the tragedy in their childhood, of the day when a man, posing as a cop, abducted Dave and locked him a basement for four days, where he was molested repeatedly. Dave survived and he did not survive. Part of him died in that basement. Jimmy and Sean, even as kids, sense this; they know that Dave has been hurt in ways that won’t heal. He is a person who has experienced things they cannot comprehend. He is a stranger.

Twenty-five years later, Jimmy, Sean and Dave know of, but don’t really know, each other anymore. Then a present-day crime forces them together again: Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. On the night of her murder, Dave came home to his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) covered in blood with a badly injured hand. He feeds her a story about fighting off a mugger that she doesn’t quiet her suspicions. Because whether she admits it to herself or not, she’s always been a little wary of Dave, who withdraws a little more from his family every day. Sean’s partner, Sgt. Powers (Laurence Fishburne), pegs Dave as a suspect in Katie’s death, and it’s not long before Sean wonders if he’s right. The real trouble starts when Jimmy, unhinged by his grief, hears Dave was the last person to see Katie alive. That’s all Jimmy needs to spur him to action, and his choices lead up to an agonizing conclusion that packs a Stephen King-styled final blow.

“Mystic River” the novel stands apart from usual true-crime fare in its examination of the events that shaped Jimmy, Sean and Dave psychologically. Rarely in these kinds of novels do the authors provide such a complex exploration of how the past informs the present. It’s something of a miracle, then, that Eastwood, working from a script adapted by Brian Helgeland, manages to retain all this psychological depth. More than that, he creates Boston the way Lehane presents the city: inscrutable and forbidding, yet deeply committed to the importance of family, justice — however it is meted — and loyalty. Eastwood crafts his shots to speak as much to the characters’ turmoil as they do to Boston’s beauty, such as a sinister confrontation on a riverbank, or the image of Dave’s face in a dark room, illuminated only by the glow of the television. The acting amplifies the mood, with Penn delivering a towering performance as an ex-con who feels and reacts before thinking. (In one terrific scene, Linney plays purring devil’s advocate to his tortured Macbeth.) Harden is equally powerful as the wife of a man she loves but barely knows. Bacon and Robbins have parts that require a lower key, with Robbins turning in a quietly devastating performance as Dave, a ghost in his own life. He doesn’t say much, but the horror in his eyes is unforgettable.

No. 15: “Dead Man Walking” (1995)

“It’s not faith, it’s work.”
~~Sister Helen Prejean

Humanity exists in everyone. Men are not worse than their worst deeds. Talk about ideas that are easy to preach but hard to practice, particularly on death row. The miracle of Tim Robbins’ immensely powerful “Dead Man Walking” is that every character struggles with these concepts, and many do not swallow them as gospel truths. Here is one of the few — and possibly the most poignant and intelligent — examinations of the death penalty that leaves no scar left unseen, no voice left unheard.

The first voice belongs to that of Sister Helen Prejean (a wonderfully understated Susan Sarandon), who receives a letter from New Orleans death row inmate Matthew Poncelot (Sean Penn) and decides to visit him. There are no thoughts of shining up his dirty soul — she goes, she tells the priest, because “he wrote to me.” She enters the prison unprepared by what she finds: an oily, conceited racist whose manicured goatee give him an undeniable air of evil. But Poncelot gets a surprise of his own: Sister Helen is no Bible-thumper interested in adding another saved soul to her belt. Her motives are genuine; she asks questions and listens to his answers. She treats Poncelot, accused of murdering a teen couple and raping the girl, with respect because he is a person. For her, that’s reason enough, and so it becomes reason enough for us to care.

Soon, more voices chime in. Sister Helen’s tentative friendship with Poncelot opens a floodgate of complications. Poncelot draws her into his case, urging her to help him turn his death sentence into life in prison, and she agrees partly because she’s in too deep to pull back. (Credit Robbins with writing Helen this way and Sarandon with making her confusion palpable; rarely do we see religious figures this openly conflicted.) Poncelot, however, doesn’t make things easy — he tells Sister Helen what she wants to hear, then lapses into crazed, bigoted rants and aligns himself with neo-Nazis on TV. But there is real pain and fear beneath all that bravado*. She must face the wrath of the murdered girl’s parents (R. Lee Ermey, Celia Weston) and the quiet disappointment of the dead boy’s father (a subtle, devastating Raymond J. Barry). Angry, too, are the nuns in her order, who berate her for helping a lost cause like Poncelot instead of working with the disadvantaged children who need her more.

The volume of issues Robbins tackles in his adaptation of the real Sister Helen’s memoir is staggering. Robbins examines everything: faith, fear, revenge, pain, absolution, guilt, redemption. He does so with remarkable patience; he refuses to muscle his characters into acting as puppets meant to advance the plot. Not once does he attempt to force-feed us empty cliches and platitudes about the death penalty. Robbins is too subtle; rather, he elects to let this story develop naturally, allowing the unpredictability of human nature to dictate outcomes.  Consider, for example, Sister Helen’s meeting with the murdered girl’s parents, who believe she’s come to side with them. Their anger is blistering, and it pushes Sister Helen to question her own judgments about what Poncelot has done.

Robbins’ beautifully balanced script is elevated immensely by his actors. Talent doesn’t get much deeper or richer than Sarandon and Penn, two actors who tend to inhabit their characters completely. Saddled with the unenviable task of portraying a nun, Sarandon subverts our expectations; her Sister Helen is not a saint but a flawed woman who know she’s in over her head but won’t give up. She tells Poncelot he’s “a son of God” and honestly believes this to be true. Her directness is unexpectedly moving. Penn offers a fine counterpoint, for Poncelot covers the reality about his involvement with the murders with swagger and lines he’s pulled from Nazi propaganda pamphlets. But watch Penn’s eyes — they dam up rivers of emotions that threaten to overflow any second. When he finally tells Sister Helen “thank you for loving me,” it’s a moment of honesty so hard-won it feels wholly real. And in the end, that’s exactly where “Dead Man Walking” gets it right: It shows not one side but all of them. Every face we see haunts us immeasurably.

*Nowhere is this more evident than in Bruce Springsteen’s “Dead Man Walkin’,” a haunting song he penned specifically for the film’s soundtrack.

Perfect for every part

In his review of “Burn After Reading,” Roger Ebert remarked that Frances McDormand has a “rare ability to seem correctly cast in every role.” Truer words were never spoken, I’d say, but they made me little mind take a wander and a ponder. (It’s dangerous to do both at once, but my mind sort of walks on the wild side.) And so I considered: Are there other modern-day actors/actresses out there who seem perfect for every role no matter how good or bad the movie?

(Prepare for some serious anticlimactic-ness. I would have stopped writing if the answer to this question was “no.”)

Eventually I devised a list of modern actors/actresses who impress me every time I see them. Today I’ll keep the focus on the men.

The actors

  • Christian Bale — OK, fine, so this one was a gimme, you’re screaming at me. Maybe it was. But any list of chameleonic actors that does not contain Bale’s name is a fraud because nobody does it quite like Bale. He’s gotten stuck in a rut of late, but his talent tells me he’s got a lighter (though no less brilliantly acted) role in him somewhere.
  • Adrien Brody — From big-name critic pleasers (i.e., “The Pianist”) to low-budge, so-so indies (“Dummy,” “Love the Hard Way”) to a movie with Tupac (“Bullet”), Brody’s done it all, and every character’s believable. Now that’s real talent, and not the kind you can learn in acting school.
  • Don Cheadle — It goes without saying that no one’s quite as willing to try anything as Cheadle, who moves from Oscar-worthy stuff (“Hotel Rwanda,” “Crash”) to slick fun (the “Ocean’s” trilogy) to pure fluff (“Hotel for Dogs”) with an air of cool that can’t be penetrated. Bring on the new Col. Rhodes.
  • Johnny Depp — Everyone remembers Johnny Depp as someone different. (To me, he’ll always be Jack Sparrow/Gilbert Grape/Sam.) He’s never the same character twice (though he does bring that left-of-center attitude to many roles), and that’s why he continues to captivate us so. Anyone who has the stones to attempt to remake Willy Wonka gets in on sheer guts.
  • Richard Jenkins — All hail to the (until recently) unsung hero of Hollywood. Relegated to way-too-small parts, this superb character actor routinely steals scenes (“The Man Who Wasn’t There”) or improves a terrible movie (“Step Brothers,” anyone?). “The Visitor” was his chance to take the lead, and I hope he gets many, many more. He certainly deserves them.
  • William H. Macy — Macy’s the low-key guy who makes a point to sneak up and win us over when we’re not looking. TV, drama, black comedy (check him out in “Thank You for Smoking”) — there’s nothing this actor can’t handle. I think we all know he was the only heavy-hitter in “Wild Hogs” … which is a compliment even if it doesn’t quite sound like one.
  • Sean Penn — He’s a tricky, tricky fellow, this one, and a chameleon who just plain disappears into whatever character he’s playing. All talk of his petulance, snippy interviews, volatile relationship with the media melts away when he’s Harvey Milk, or Jimmy Markum, or Matthew Poncelot.
  • Joaquin Phoenix — There was a time (you remember it, and fondly) before Joaquin grew the mountain man beard and turned weirder than Kristen Stewart’s hair that he was quite the transformer. He could make funny (“8MM,” “Buffalo Soldiers”), do action (“Ladder 49″) and go for wrenching drama (everything else he ever did). Will someone order the exorcism so we can get the real J.P. back?
  • Geoffrey Rush — Rush has been so many colorful characters that it’s hard to pick a favorite (Casanova Frankenstein — wait, it’s not so hard). From the Marquis de Sade to Javert (how literary!) to Peter Sellers to the intellectual Captain Barbosa playing, well, Javert to Johnny Depp’s Valjean, Rush makes it look so darn easy, and cool to boot.
  • Benicio del Toro — Benicio always gets us with the drama. Nobody does “tortured and mysterious” quite like him (see “The Pledge” or “21 Grams”), and so the comedy — when he unleashes it — shocks us silly. But he’s got jokes, too, and a sly sense of humor that will come to good use in “The Three Stooges.” If anybody could revamp Moe Howard, it’s Fred Fenster, alright.

What say you, readers? Let’s hear your suggestions.

Welcome the weirdness: Sean Penn joins “Stooges” production

Sean Penn fans are a fanatical bunch. (Trust me. I am one.) We use the good — his performances in “Fast Times,” “Dead Man Walking,” “21 Grams” and “Mystic River” for starters — to excuse away all the paparazzi beatings, the awkward interviews, the bizarrely off-putting behavior, the snide comments, the moments when he made it, in his words, so hard to appreciate him. And we tend to believe he can do anything, or we at least appreciate the fact that he’ll damn near kill himself trying. I mean, the guy directed a Jewel music video.

But playing Larry Fine in the Farrelly brothers’ 2010 send-up to “The Three Stooges”? Alongside Benicio Del Toro as Moe and Jim Carrey as Curly?

Somebody call Robert Downey Jr. I think Penn just went full retard … again.

And yet, as tempted as I — and so many fans — might be to write this off as pure lunacy, I can’t quite do it. Penn can do comedy; anybody who’s seen “Fast Times” knows that. He was low-key and funny in his “Friends” and “Two and a Half Men” cameos. He found pain and, more importantly, humor in “Milk.” Is it really so difficult to believe there’s a sense of humor buried beneath all those layers and layers of seething rage that would make Ray Liotta hide under the bed with his yellow blankie?

Lest you think I’m some sort of weirdo with a Sean Penn shrine made of cold cuts in my closet, I’ll go a step further and say there are two more reasons why “The Three Stooges” could, in theory, work: Benicio Del Toro and Jim Carrey. Think about it. No, really, think about it. With his mumbly, indecipherable accent, wasn’t Del Toro the funniest character in “The Usual Suspects”? Then there’s “Excess Baggage,” where he played a bewildered, bumbling accidental kidnapper who easily matched wits with Alicia Silverstone. He nailed the physical comedy there; I think Del Toro can pull this off. And love him or hate him, Carrey’s cornered the market on spastic slapstick and comical yet disturbing facial expressions — The Mask,” “Ace Venture: Pet Detective,” “Dumb and Dumber” … you get the picture. He could do this in his sleep; in fact, I think that’s how he made “Liar Liar.”

Yes, the only potential weak link is, uh, the directors (and the top, I admit, is not a primo spot for a weak link). Bobby and Peter Farrelly had their heyday in the 1990s, peaking with “Kingpin” (good) and “There’s Something about Mary” (eh). But “The Heartbreak Kid” flopped like Nemo on dry land; even Rob “I’m growin’ out my bangs” Corddry couldn’t save it. So it all hinges on whether the Brothers Dim try to force this ragtag trio to ape the real Stooges (bad idea!) or let Penn, Del Toro and Carrey find their characters themselves (great idea!).

As for me, I’m thinking this movie’s way to success. What? There’s a reason “The Secret” has sold a quintillion copies worldwide. Just, uh, do me a favor and don’t tell Penn. He’d probably mock me.

Got “Milk”?

If there’s one thing Hollywood loves, it’s trailers. Lots of trailers. Played in every theater beginning at least six months (maybe sooner if the director’s really ambitious or particularly sadistic) before the movie in question is released. (Remember “Vantage Point”? I calculate that one played every six seconds on television and in theaters until the release.) Call it the Even-If-You-Don’t-Watch-This-Movie-You’re-Gonna-Watch-This-Movie strategy.

For the love of William H. Macy, there’s even an HD channel devoted ENTIRELY to film trailers.

All these little tidbits jump-started my flatlining after-lunch brain, energizing it with a thought — namely, where the hell is all the promotion and marketing for Sean Penn’s new biopic “Milk”?

The movie, which is set to be released Dec. 5, has been a ghost. In all my trips to the theater in the past six months, I can recall one (count it: one) trailer for the biopic about California’s first openly gay elected official Harvey Milk. I’ve seen no ads on TV, no posters … nothing.

Are the rest of you, readers, pondering what I’m pondering? Or does the cheese stand alone?

What, I wonder, could be the reasoning behind this scant promotion? Proposition 8? Sean Penn’s general aversion to publicity? A widespread conspiracy involving Sean Penn, Josh Brolin, Celine Dion and the fat guy from “My Name Is Earl”?

If anyone has theories, feel free to share them. In the meantime, I’ll busy myself hatching more and more intricately absurd conspiracy theories that may, in the end, turn out to be true. (Hey, it worked for Mel in “Conspiracy Theory.”)

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