Saturday, August 11, 2012

Expectations Of Exceptional: Mystic River, The Average Great Film

The Good: Acting, Soundtrack, Moments of plot/character
The Bad: Movie never reaches its emotional potential, Somewhat predictable character arcs
The Basics: In a truly great, though unsurprising film, Mystic River presents a murder mystery centering around three childhood friends who have taken different paths. Does not exceed expectations.

If there were ever an "average great film," it would have to be Mystic River, the Clint Eastwood-directed drama that features one of the most impressive casts in Hollywood. In fact, if there is anything truly wrong with Mystic River, it is that the film is set up to dazzle an audience with such practiced, confirmed actors and themes as to make it almost impossible for the movie to ultimately underwhelm the seasoned moviegoer.

Jimmy, Dave and Sean are growing up together in a neighborhood as close friends, playing the street, planning pranks and writing their names in wet cement, when one day their lives change drastically. Two men approach the kids, scold them and because they are posing as police officers, they convinced Dave to get in their car under the auspices of taking him home to tell his mother about the trouble he's been getting into. Sean and Jimmy immediately inform their parents, but Dave is gone. Dave is held in a cellar for four days before he successfully escapes the tortures of the men who have captured him.

Flash forward twenty-five years. Dave is quietly raising his son, Jimmy is running a business and raising his three daughters and Sean finds himself trying to reconcile with his wife who abandoned him and left him shaken. Sean is a detective and when he and his partner, Whitey Powers, catch an especially brutal homicide, Sean finds himself in an unenviable position. The deceased is Jimmy's oldest daughter, Katie, and the best suspect for the murder is Dave.

Mystic River has all of the markers of a great movie: a wonderful cast, a dense and disturbing plot, phenomenal direction, layered characters and actors who are performing at the top of their game. Mystic River has all of these things. So, why was I so underwhelmed?

The movie is underwhelming because these are the expectations going in. Watching the trailer promises that this is going to be a big, bold movie in all the ways listed above. Are the performances good? Yes. Is the plot disturbing and complicated? Certainly. Does director Clint Eastwood deliver as far as establishing and developing a mood that tells the story well? Yes. But that was the expectation going in. The problem is, it doesn't do anything more. The movie lives up to expectations, but because the expectations are of greatness, when the movie is great in every technical sense, it merely reinforces the expectations.

One of the nice things about Mystic River is that the male characters are all utterly dependent upon the female characters for reassurance and genuine definition, which is why Whitey remains somewhat distant from the spotlight. Jimmy's actions throughout the movie characterize him strongly as a man who will defend his family at all costs. He is a man of love and vengeance, hardened by time in jail and likely criminal behavior since - there's no other good reason for his lackeys who have a parallel murder investigation to the police - and all that humanizes him and allows him to live with himself comes from his wife Annabeth. Annabeth removes his doubts and justifies all of his actions. Similarly, Sean's estranged wife provides him with definition and balance outside the job.

The proof of the value of women in the men's lives is evident in the relationship between Dave and his wife, Celeste. Celeste is suspicious when Dave returns home the morning of Katie's murder with blood on his clothes and a nasty cut on his chest. She listens as he tells other people different reasons for the blood and becomes troubled when his stated reason - taking out a mugger who tried to attack him when he left the bar - does not appear in the newspapers. Celeste stops believing in Dave, reinforced when he reveals the truth about what happened when he was abducted to her. It is when Celeste stops believing in Dave that his reality shatters and he begins to be unable to function.

And Dave is a sympathetic character. The viewer empathizes with his struggle; the idea of him being tormented and trying to live a normal life after that is a compelling character journey. When Dave's truths are revealed, he becomes vivid and pitiable. It is difficult to watch him struggle, so vivid is his experience and the ramifications of it.

Similarly, Jimmy Markum is exceptionally empathetic. In the world we hear is increasingly dangerous, Jimmy becomes the logical extension of the desire to protect one's family from the realities of those dangers. Jimmy is arguably a man who is doing what society demands of him - reinforced by the love and support of his wife for doing it.

Jimmy is played by Sean Penn. Penn, who has impressed me in All The King's Men and I Am Sam (reviewed here!) continues to prove he can be a true dramatic heavy. With a gaze, with the setting of his jaw, Penn is able to create a vivid characterization. From his earliest appearances on screen, the audience is able to figure out exactly what kind of man Jimmy has become in the years since his childhood. The viewer is able to buy completely a quasi-thug who is still able to ask his childhood buddy, "Do you ever wonder what would have happened if you had gotten into that car?" because of the way Penn portrays Jimmy. He's not just a dumb thug or hitman here, he's layered and that role is somewhat demanding. And Penn delivers.

Kevin Bacon is surprisingly good as Sean Devine, though the role is not much of a stretch for the intense actor. Instead, Bacon comes naturally to the role of a detective. Similarly, Laurence Fishburn, who plays Sean's partner Whitey, seems naturally cast as a detective and the role falls more within his established caliber of acting rather than an actual challenge for him. Marcia Gay Harden (Celeste), Laura Linney (Jimmy's wife Annabeth), and Emmy Rossum (Katie) all give wonderful supporting performances. All three have been in roles where they are leads and prove their acting worth and Mystic River merely offers them another outing, continued practice. Harden, particularly, is unchallenged by the role she plays in this film as she plays it quite closely to her character from The Spitfire Grill (reviewed here!).

The performance that makes Mystic River worth coming back to more than once is that of Tim Robbins as Dave. Robbins is quiet and understated, the very model of deeply wounded in this movie. Robbins plays Dave in such a way that the viewer knows he's not right even before he delivers his first line. With his body language and soft-spoken delivery of most of his lines, Robbins wonderfully embodies a man whose childhood demons still live within him.

The DVD is scant on extras, which I was disappointed by. It is, however, the only real disappointment coming out of Mystic River. Everything else lived up to the viewer's expectations, high as they were.

For other works with Spencer Treat Clark, check out my reviews of:
The Last House On The Left


For other film reviews, be sure to check out my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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