From The Parallax Review Vaults: Mystic River (2003)

The following review originally was written for The Parallax Review, a film review site of which I was the co-founder and managing editor. I have decided to collect the writings I did for The Parallax Review and preserve them here. I will be posting a few of these older pieces every week. My review of Mystic River was for the “Academy of the Overrated” column of The Parallax Review.

by Matt Wedge, Managing Editor

It happens to everyone: You spend weeks listening to friends, coworkers, family members, and even film critics rave about one particular movie, but you’re just not interested. Finally, months after its release, you sit down to watch it on DVD or cable, and when the end credits roll, you wonder what all the fuss was about. The Academy of the Overrated examines the strengths and weaknesses of these films in order to understand why everyone loved them but us.

The one thing I’ve always admired about Clint Eastwood as a director is his ability to show restraint where lesser filmmakers would go for a “big” moment. He understands that it’s possible to explore complicated characters and emotions without resorting to overtly manipulative tactics. And, for the most part, he has cast actors who understand this and fall in line with his less-is-more vision.

That’s why I was so shocked when I first saw Mystic River. It struck me as a stunning misfire from a usually reliable director with a good cast overacting like they were in a high school production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Even worse, Eastwood showcased bizarre flourishes and an over-the-top score, which he helped compose, that only further pushed the film into overbearing territory.

When I talked to friends after seeing it, I was stunned to find myself alone in my negative appraisal of the film. I suppose I shouldn’t have been. After all, the critical community slathered love on the film as though it was a pristine print of Orson Welles’ long lost cut of The Magnificent Ambersons. Then the film was nominated for six Oscars, with Sean Penn winning for best actor in what I consider one of the worst Academy Awards decisions ever made (right up there with the Best Picture wins for Gladiator and Crash). I felt as though I was the only sane man in an insane asylum, and nothing anyone has said in the seven years since its release has made me feel any differently. I figured this column would be a great chance to see if maybe the film was better than I remembered it. Was I being unfair? Was the film actually the masterpiece everyone else had claimed? Did I get it wrong?

The short answer is no. But since you’re looking for in-depth analysis, read on while I rail away at one of the best-reviewed movies of the last decade. I will just assume that everyone has seen the movie, so, in the interest of saving on the word count, I’ll do away with any synopsis. Of course, this also means that if you haven’t seen the film, you should beware of spoilers.

If anything, the opening sequence that finds our future protagonists as children is even more ham-fisted than I remembered. From the silly swagger that child actor Jason Kelly gives to Jimmy to the painfully obvious metaphor of the three children trying to chase down a street-hockey ball before it rolls into the sewer drain, the film pounds away at every important beat like Keith Moon attacking a drum kit. I will admit that the scenes of young Dave (Cameron Brown) escaping from his abductors are handled well, with Eastwood layering animal sounds over the soundtrack, addressing the horrific situation as the truly terrifying moment that it is.

Once the film moves into the present-day story, I have to admit that I wondered if I had been wrong. Eastwood and the cast do a nice job of soaking up the neighborhood atmosphere that permeates the film. The main characters are introduced with a minimum of fuss, and only Marcia Gay Harden (as Dave’s wife) shows any indication of the overacting that is to come.

But once the murder of Katie Markum (Emmy Rossum) takes center stage, the film plunges headfirst into melodramatic territory from which no scenery can escape the gaping maws of Penn (as the adult Jimmy) and Harden (who received an Oscar nomination). From Penn’s infamous screaming, Oscar-clip-ready “Is that my daughter in there?!” scene to Harden’s twitch-a-second performance, the two normally reliable actors pull out all the stops to make sure they are the center of attention in every scene, damn the negative effects it has on the film.

Even worse than Penn and Harden’s dueling over-the-top performances is the fact that the mystery at the film’s center is easy to solve. It’s not that the mystery is weak — it’s that Eastwood’s handling of it is. When the actual killers are shown, I knew immediately, from years of watching films, that they were the killers. Why? Because Eastwood disrupts the flow of an interrogation scene to have them introduced to Sean and his partner, Whitey (Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne, showing admirable restraint), and then goes right back into the interrogation as though a giant bell hadn’t just been rung to announce: THIS IS IMPORTANT. The same happens later in the film, during yet another interrogation. A character we haven’t seen before walks into the room to deliver a box full of files and evidence related to the case. Will this box contain the break that will lead to the killers? Do you even need to ask?

I remember that after my first viewing of Mystic River, my big complaint (after taking Penn and Harden to task) was that halfway through the film, I knew exactly what was going to happen. I knew who the killers were. I knew that Jimmy would blame Dave (played as an adult by Tim Robbins) for Katie’s murder. I knew Jimmy would kill Dave and that he would get away with it. How did I know these things? Because Eastwood telegraphs every turn that Brian Helgeland’s script makes.

It’s often been said that great tragedy has the feel of inevitability — nothing any of the characters could have done would have changed the outcome. I don’t argue with this theory. Do the Right Thing, one of the best films I’ve ever seen, has this quality. But with that film, I knew something terrible was going to happen, but I never knew what. It was the feel of paranoia and impending doom with which Spike Lee was able to infuse the film that made it effective. Eastwood eschews this ambiguous style in favor of hitting the audience over the head with obvious ironies.

The only part of the film I didn’t see coming was the needlessly long resolution. First, Dave’s story about killing a child molester, not Katie, turns out to be true. Then we are given the unsatisfying wrap-up to the ridiculous subplot involving Sean and his wife who left him (handled, once again, in an overwrought style by Eastwood’s decision to finally show her face after the silly previous scenes of only showing her mouth in extreme close-up). But what surprised me about the resolution is the change in the character of Annabeth (Laura Linney). Barely shown through most of the movie, she suddenly reveals herself to be a Lady Macbeth-type who withheld information from Jimmy that could have stopped him from killing Dave and pushes him back into the criminal world. Why? Because she likes to see him wield power and protect his family. This revelation comes out of left field and feels like a crucial character beat from Dennis Lehane’s novel that makes no sense because Annabeth is barely tangential to the rest of the film.

While I’m talking about Lehane’s novel, I want to point out that I’ve never read any of his work. In fact, my distaste for Mystic River led me to avoid 2007’s Gone Baby Gone, which was also based on one of his novels. It wasn’t until I finally watched The Wire, of which he wrote three episodes, and Shutter Island that I finally came to the conclusion that it wasn’t the story that went wrong with the film; it was Eastwood’s handling of it.

The only reason I am giving the film even two stars is due to the stark cinematography by Tom Stern and an impressive performance by Tim Robbins. Robbins also won an Oscar for his performance, and it was well deserved. Playing Dave like a soft-spoken giant who is afraid of his own shadow, he turns his normally boyish face into a haunted mask of pain and confusion. His Dave is a pitiable creature and the only reason that I was able to stay semi-involved in the film.

But these positives are more than offset by Eastwood’s oddly unhinged direction and sloppy sense of story. Unable to reign in Penn and Harden and indulging in visual stunts that are at odds with his usual efficiency in telling a story, this remains one of Eastwood’s most disappointing films. I know I’m in the minority, but a second viewing did nothing to change my mind. If anything, it only validated my initial opinion.

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