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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.