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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.

No. 24: “The Shawshank Redemption” (1994)

“I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy livin’ or get busy dyin’.” ~~Red

Friends and acquaintances periodically ask how I can spend so many waking hours staring at movies on screens large and small. They want to know why I love films so much. When I have trouble forming an answer in words, I direct them to “The Shawshank Redemption.” Frank Darabont’s film says more — and speaks more poignantly — than I ever could on the subject. Put simply, “The Shawshank Redemption” is a motion picture that shows the unique ability of the cinema to transport us into worlds a far cry from our own and show us how we all feel the same pain, fear, determination, rage, hope. “The Shawshank Redemption” speaks to the fragility and the resiliency of the human spirit and its capacity to stockpile hope. This is why people see movies.

So much of the film’s power lies in the screenplay, deftly adapted by Darabont from Stephen King’s moving novella “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” and Roger Deakins’ cinematography, which evokes a very real and chilling desperation that seems to seep into our bones. Darabont takes great pains to preserve the unsentimental but hopeful spirit of King’s story, set in Shawshank Prison in Maine, but he takes some liberties with the plainspoken narrator, Otis “Red” Redding (Morgan Freeman). King originally wrote Red as a 50-ish Irishman, but here Darabont relies on Freeman. Nothing is lost and so much is gained in this translation, for Freeman is an actor who radiates quiet dignity. His Red, “the guy who gets things,” is a cautious observer of prison life more than a participant, and after 30 years he’s done anticipating his release. “One day, when I have a long gray beard and two or three marbles rollin’ around upstairs, they’ll let me out,” he reasons. Red also doesn’t think much of newcomer Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins), convicted of killing his wife and her lover; in fact, he refers to Andy as “that tall drink of water with the silver spoon up his ass.” Only Freeman could take that line and make it as astute as it is funny.

Red, as it turns out, and his cronies — Heywood (William Sadler), Floyd (Brian Libby) and Brooks (James Whitmore), a near-lifer dreading his approaching parole date — figured Andy all wrong. He’s tougher than he looks and he pulls some legendary stunts, like convincing Warden Norton (Bob Gunton), a cruel Bible thumper, to let him drastically expand the prison library, then locking himself in the warden’s office and blasting “The Marriage of Figaro” over the prison speakers. Andy also forges a tentative friendship with Red, and their bond changes the shape of their lives: Red can’t pretend he’s still content marking time, and Andy can’t keep choking back the rage the rage his wrongful conviction and the warden’s shady dealings have left him with.

Bringing life to written words (specifically those written by Stephen King) necessitates a strong team of actors, and “The Shawshank Redemption” is not light on talent. Gunton hints at the insecurity behind Warden Norton’s tyrannical behavior, and Clancy Brown is fearsome as Captain Hadley, who delights in brutality and abuse. Darabont hand-picked Freeman for Red, claiming he was the best choice, and he’s right. Red requires a specific elegance, a mix of sardonic wisdom and world-weary humor that Freeman projects without effort. Though Robbins wasn’t the original pick for Andy, it’s impossible to imagine a better one. His role, too, is a delicate balance of simmering emotion, calm and cunning. Freeman deservedly received an Oscar nomination, but Robbins’ performance is the one that sneaks up on us, reminding us that dreams exist even when they’re forced into tiny, cold, walled-up cells.

There’s a moment, in fact, where we can see all this plain on Andy’s face. When he emerges from the hole, he tells Red of his dreams, of living in Mexico where the Pacific has no memory. As he talks, we see he’s not dejected but hopeful. More than that, he’s alive. Inside him is a resolve that the warden and Captain Hadley just can’t break, and there’s something beautiful and immensely uplifting about that.

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.