Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Eastwood mystery roils with tension

By Margaret A. McGurk
The Cincinnati Enquirer

In Mystic River, director Clint Eastwood plumbs a dark mystery that strikes a tight-knit neighborhood with crippling force.

At the center of the film are three powerful actors who deliver some of the best work of their careers.

Jimmy (Sean Penn), Sean (Kevin Bacon) and Dave (Tim Robbins) grew up together in a blue-collar corner of Boston, where their lives were changed profoundly after a terrible crime befalls one of the boys.

(R: language, violence) Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden. Directed by Clint Eastwood. 137 minutes. AMC 20, Cinema 10, Danbarry Middletown, Great Escape 14, National Amusements, Rave West Chester Township.
As adults, they have drifted apart. Jimmy, whose criminal past cost him a stint in prison, now owns a neighborhood store. He and his second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) have two little girls; he also has a 19-year-old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), whose mother died while Jimmy was locked up.

Sean is a detective still agonizing over being deserted by his pregnant wife. Dave and his wife Celeste (Marica Gay Harden) have a little boy, whom Dave supports by working as a handyman.

When Katie is murdered, Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned to the case. Their first suspect is Brendan (Thomas Guiry), the boy Katie dated in secret despite Jimmy's fierce disapproval.

But Dave is a suspect too; the night of the murder, he came home with blood on his hands and a questionable story about attacking a mugger.

There is far more at play here, however, than an ordinary police story.

The tragedy stirs up murky reservoirs of pain and doubt that work on each man in a different way. Under the pressure of memory and guilt and hunger for revenge, the solid ground below their feet begins to crumble.

Penn, Bacon and Robbins each perform with focus and discipline that add up to immense emotional power. Robbins' finds reservoirs of heartbreaking poignancy in his tortured character, a man so damaged he finds comfort by sitting in the dark watching vampire movies. Penn, too, makes a fully human portrait of a man whose rage threatens to shred his soul.

Harden and Linney likewise rise to the material with painful and chilling work of precise craftsmanship.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, sees with terrifying clarity the frailty of respectability. In Mystic River, the capacity for evil crouches just below the surface of a decent, traditional community, and when it breaks free, the infection strikes with brutality.

Eastwood understands every whisper of this story and frames it with restraint and confidence.

Mystic River recalls the majesty and sorrow of Eastwood's Unforgiven, but it stands firmly on its own as one of the year's most profoundly accomplished movies.


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