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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.

Review: “The Savages” (2007)

“The Savages” is so credible — sometimes mortifyingly so — in its depictions of nursing homes and elderly parents that it could be a documentary. That is to be expected, since Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman are the kind of relatable actors who look and act like actual human beings. They act in ways that make it seem like they aren’t acting at all, but going through the motions of life as the script prescribes. “The Savages,” an awkward gem, requires them to play caregivers to the aging father, Lenny (Philip Bosco), who never cared very much for them. Wendy and Jon Savage are not prepared for this, but who is? Spoon-feeding your father applesauce while he lies, shrunken and dopey, in a hospital bed is unnatural. 

There aren’t many films that endeavor to capture the undignified end as it is. Rosey films like “The Notebook” romanticize senility, turn dementia into fodder for romantic drama or melodrama. There are sloppy crocodile tears and wailing when a parent, grandparent or spouse stops recognizing loved ones. In “The Savages,” director Tamara Jenkins sidesteps this road. She romanticizes nothing, intuiting that melodrama is something the family of a disabled elderly person does not have time for. It’s hard to cling and weep when nurses keep changing diapers. Jenkins emphasizes the small details that tell the emotional story underneath, like the way Wendy insists on decorating her father’s room with knicknacks even though he could care less. She argues tearfully with Jon (Hoffman) that Lenny should go into the best facility they can afford; he observes pragmatically that their father won’t know the difference anyway and he was a terrible father, so why waste the money. There’s no drama in this scene, only the truth that the drastic change in Lenny’s life will affect theirs.

Most of “The Savages” plays out in Lenny’s facility, where he devolves from a hateful misanthrope to more or less an infant. It sometimes happens this way in such places, the devolution from adult to child. There’s something intrinsically unsettling about this end-of-life process. Jenkins doesn’t highlight the transformation in any splashy way; this only serves to make it more real. Bosco manages both aspects of Lenny quite capably. Lenny’s not a nice man, never was, but watching the spirit seep out of him is sad. Wendy, a playwright living in New York City, and Jon, a professor/author from Buffalo, must to decide what to do with Lenny after his girlfriend dies and he’s unable to live alone. He’s moved from Arizona, cursing and spitting, to a place in Buffalo so they can visit him. Wendy and Jon don’t want to visit him, and when they do they feel as twitchy and out of place as we all do in nursing homes. Wendy takes the couch at Jon’s place and notes his odd relationship with his girlfriend — he won’t marry her to keep her from being deported, but he cries when she cooks him breakfast (trust Hoffman to make this seem touching, not weird). Wendy’s own romantic life is mired in a pointless affair with a married man (Peter Friedman), and her kiss with a kind nurse (Gbenga Akinnagbe) ends in disappointment. Still, the more Lenny’s situation draws Wendy and Jon together, the more they realize how his abuse stunted them. They don’t speak of this in grand terms; it’s more of a gradual realization that bonds them when they aren’t looking. 

“The Savages” is Jenkins’ second “unconvential” film. The first, “Slums of Beverly Hills,” centered on the Abromowitz clan, a nomadic family held together by shared neuroses. It’s the same with Wendy and Jon Savage. Perhaps only together could they handle bearing witness to the reality of dying: the bedpans and diapers, the pills dissolved into pudding cups, the silent moments that come after talking is pointless, the wait for some kind of end. When it comes in “The Savages,” Wendy can only ask: “Is that it?” It might sound callous, but to those of us who have watched an elderly loved one die with a whimper and not a bang, it’s a home truth that’s frustrating and beautiful in its own way. 

Grade: A

Review: “Jindabyne” (2006)

Old Jindabyne, located in New South Wales, Australia, is mostly invisible. Flooded in the 1960s to make Lake Jindabyne, the abandoned town sits quietly under the rippling surface. But on some days, when lake waters drop low enough, parts of Jindabyne come into view — a reminder of sorts that buried things have a tendency not to stay buried forever.

That Old Jindabyne serves as the setting of Aussie director Ray Lawrence’s tense, eerie character study “Jindabyne” is certainly no accident. The watery ghost town seems to attract residents nursing old grudges and long-suppressed emotional pain. However, it takes a murder and the discovery of the body to force all the hurts to the surface and even bigger, more dangerous ones. Early in their fishing trip, Stewart (Gabriel Byrne), Gregory (Chris Haywood), Rocco (Stelios Yiakmis), Billy (Simon Stone) and Carl (John Howard) discover the nude body of an aboriginal woman (Tatea Reilly) floating in the river. The men decide to finish their weekend before reporting the gruesome finding, going so far as to tether the body to tree so it won’t float downstream. She’s dead, they seem to agree silently, so what does it matter?

It’s a decision that has enormous and damning repercussions. Though the men elect to create a story to explain their choice, Billy spills the truth to a reporter. The story hits like a bomb blast. Stewart’s wife Claire (Laura Linney) is horrified by her husband’s cruel behavior and tries to make amends with the family of Susan, the dead girl. This alienates her from her friends: Carmel (Leah Purcell), who believes Claire has no business intruding on aboriginal rituals, and Jude (Deborra-Lee Furness), still recovering from the death of her own daughter. Tensions between the whites and the aborigines, who believe Stewart and his friends wouldn’t have dismissed Susan so easily if she’d been white.

Though Susan’s death plays a key role in “Jindabyne,” the film is about much more than a murder and the discovery of her corpse. Much like Karen Moncrieff’s sadly overlooked “The Dead Girl,” “Jindabyne” explores the ways that one death creates a kind of butterfly effect, changing everyone from the family of the deceased to complete strangers, and untethers all the little hurts we weight down. Susan’s murder affects each character differently. For Stewart, it brings to light his anger over the post-partum depression that caused Claire to leave him and their son for 18 months. On one level, Claire simply wants to atone for her husband’s mistake; on another, she’s seeking absolution of her own unresolved guilt. The incident makes Jude and Carl confront their grief over the death of their daughter and the stress of raising her daughter (Eva Lazzaro). Even the killer seems surprised by the firestorm his crime has created. In this way, “Jindabyne” is very much a character study, but one with many interconnected threads.

Telling a story this complex requires patience and time, and Lawrence, who adapted “Jindabyne” from Raymond Carver’s short story “So Much Water So Close to Home,” has both in spades. He lets the characters unravel the plot threads at a pace impatient viewers will call “maddeningly slow” and minimalist fans — including this viewer — will deem “exactly right.” Along the way he focuses much attention on nature, including Lake Jindabyne, and wide, expansive shots of Australia’s wilderness. These scenes do much to reveal the continent’s harsh natural beauty, but they also cultivate the feeling of loneliness so central to the film. In the face of such vastness, man is, in essence, very small and alone.

The people of Jindabyne know this feeling all too well, and the actors give voice to this. Furness deftly shows the weariness and the sheer frustration that come after the death of a child, while Stone understands Billy’s immaturity renders him incapable of processing something this complicated. Byrne lends Stewart an air of stubborn and tense silence; his motivations are a mystery to everyone. There’s a hardness in him that frightens his wife, a part of himself he refuses to show her. Linney’s performance, though, shakes us hardest. Her Claire is a woman bell-jarred by guilt. She cannot go backward or forward, and it is she who reminds us that a life of perpetual penance is its own kind of hell.  

Grade: A

Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender — what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…