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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.

Groovers and Mobsters Present: Gangster Movies

This review of “Miller’s Crossing” is part of a new monthly blog series created by Fandango Groovers and Movie Mobsters. Each entry will focus on top-notch films in different genres. For a complete list of this month’s entries, click on the graphic above or click here.

“Miller’s Crossing” (1990)

“Runnin’ things — It ain’t all gravy.”
~~Johnny Caspar

Directors Joel and Ethan Coen subscribe to the Just Enough Rope Theory — that is, they give their first-time viewers just enough rope to hang themselves and their seasoned-pro viewers just enough rope to get creative with. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Miller’s Crossing,” the brothers’ stylish foray into the world of gangster films. This classic sometimes ends up lumped with the Coens’ noir canon — no shabby place to be, but not exactly accurate in this case. With its focus on mob mores and gang hierarchy, “Miller’s Crossing” is more a gangster film than anything else.  

Gangs are about two things: power and control. Irish mob boss Leo (Albert Finney) believes he’s lousy with* both; Tom (Gabriel Byrne) suspects otherwise. He knows Italian mobster Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) has a beef with Bernie (John Turturro), the crooked bookie giving Johnny trouble, and he knows Johnny will start a gang war just to kill “the schmatte.” Tom also knows that Verna (Marcia Gay Harden), Leo’s dame, may be using his boss to keep Bernie — her brother — safe. So Tom, not about to let all this intel go to waste, sets about weaving a twisted web of deception that threatens to overtake “The Maltese Falcon” in complexity.

People tend to peg “Miller’s Crossing” as noir, and that is warranted — the film has characters molded from those in Dashiel Hammett’s “Red Harvest” and “The Glass Key.” But the movie should be recognized as a doozer of a gangster film. Most obvious is the hierarchical structure we observe in gangster films. When Johnny shows up to jaw about Bernie, Leo assumes his competition’s shown up as a courtesy. Wrong. Boss Johnny absorbs that as an insult to his status; so begins the battle. Then there’s the matter of “heavy lies the head that wears the crown,” suggested by Johnny’s remark about “runnin’ things.” This is an undercurrent in gangster films, and “Miller’s Crossing” thrusts it out like a credo. Helming a gangland empire is dirty business because no man can know another’s real motivations (or, as Tom says, “Nobody knows anybody. Not that well”). “Miller’s Crossing” also shines a spotlight on the father/son dynamic within this world (like “Goodfellas”), with Leo acting as Tom’s father figure. Yes, “Miller’s Crossing” is firmly rooted in gangster movie traditions. The only difference is that it classes them up with symbolism and irresistible ’30s slang. Dig?

 *To learn how to talk like these birds, skirts and yeggs, click here.

 

Review: “The Maiden Heist” (2009)

Three Oscar winners and an Oscar nominee walk onto a set to make a funny movie — wait, stop snickering. This isn’t a joke. Though if it were, the punchline would go something like “and it wasn’t funny.” Ba-dum-bum. Be here all week. Kindly tip the waitress, and don’t even think of pulling a drink-and-dash. 

Really, there’s no kinder way to say it: The only thing remarkable about “The Maiden Heist” is how unremarkable the film is. (Although the fact Peter Hewitt’s mild-mannered caper comedy got released at all should is astonishing, since distributor Yari Film Group filed for bankruptcy last December.) With this kind of mind-blowing star power — Morgan Freeman, Christopher Walken, William H. Macy and Marcia Gay Harden? In the same movie? — the potential seems limitless. It isn’t. These four try hard to rise above the limitations of the unthrilling plot and the lackluster script, yet they succeed only sporadically. How can this be? I suppose even Nelson Mandela needs a breather now and again.

But back to that “unthrilling plot.” It revolves around a surprisingly humdrum art heist scheme cooked up by two Boston museum security guards, Roger (Walken) and Charles (Freeman), after they hear their two favorite paintings will be transferred to a collection in Denmark. For men who’ve spent 30 years memorizing every brush stroke, absorbing every nuance in these works, this is unimaginable. Roger’s efforts to convince his wife Rose (Harden) to move to Denmark — he’s certain the weather is delightful “for a few weeks every year” — are fruitless. So he and Charles enlist the help of another guard George (Macy), whose deep love for a certain bronze sculpture inspires him nightly to get naked and pose beside it (“I don’t know what you think you saw, but I’m a happily married man!” he insists). Security tapes don’t lie, and while the jig is up, his pants are down.

Heist plans are mapped out, and hijinks ensue. (Bungled capers seem to follow Macy like lost puppies, no?) What began as a sneak-and-steal manuever turns into a beast of a plan that involves commissioning forgeries and switching them with the originals during the collection move. Enter a complication involving Rose, who won’t quit nagging about that trip to Florida Roger promised her. A naked man ends up in a crate that ends up in the back of the wrong van. But we should expect as much. The film’s tagline warns us these three are “bad thieves.”

Still, this is a comedy, though, so at least the fumbles are comical, right? Sometimes, at least when Macy is the one doing the fumbling in “The Maiden Heist.” He specializes in playing men with Napoleon-sized egos and Foghorn Leghorn-sized brains. Even makes these dolts seem likable, which George is. His belief that old-timers like Walken and Freeman can rappel down a brick wall is good for a chuckle; watching him do it is priceless. Macy even hams it up (well, as much as he can “ham up” anything) in the Big Switch scene, providing the bulk of the film’s precious few sidesplitting moments.

Walken and Freeman, on the other hand, make with the quiet humor. Well, they try, and sometimes they have their moments. Walken manages to give a smidge of depth to Roger, showing us a man who’s channeled his whole life into a painting to escape his own reality. He identifies with the subject of his cherised painting “The Maiden Heist” because she, like him, is filled with “desperate longing and overwhelming passion.” They are kindred spirits. Charlie and George are more of a mystery, with scriptwriter Michael LeSeiur devoting less time to their stories. Yet Freeman and Macy make these characterse mildly interesting in different ways: Charlie for the timidity inhibiting his artistic talent, and Macy for the blustering that masks his timidity. Harden’s a different story; she has no business in a role this flat. Even an actress with her gifts can’t turn Rose from a shrew into anything better. In a  nutshell, that’s the problem with “The Maiden Heist”: All these talents make the movie halfway enjoyable, but they can’t make it as good as it should be.

Grade: C+