In his 25th directorial venture, Clint Eastwood decides to remain behind the cameras for only the fourth time in his long career. If this was instant reprisal for the lukewarm response to Blood Work, Hollywood's eternal macho man did it with style. Mystic River is an adaptation of a Dennis Lehane's best selling crime-novel of the same name with a powerful story which intertwines friendship, guilt and vengeance. With the help of screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Eastwood quite simply creates the finest American film in years.
The story revolves around three childhood friends – Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon). As kids, they love playing hockey on the streets of the gritty Boston suburb they live in. One day, a car drives up the street and an elderly man, who identifies himself as a cop accuses the boys of public vandalism (They were inscribing their names onto wet cement). Dave is taken into 'custody' and the other two are warned off. Dave soon realizes that he is captured as an object for pedophilic desires and is molested for four days by the man and his associate before finding his way out.
Twenty Five years on, all three friends still reside in Boston but their friendship hasn't been the same ever since that fateful day. Jimmy, an ex-convict, runs a convenience store and is married to his second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean is a homicide detective who has a strained relationship with his wife who calls him but doesn't talk. Dave resides in the same neighborhood and has a son with his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Hayden). He still remains visibly and mentally shaken from the events of his childhood. Fate unites all of them once again when Jimmy's oldest daughter is brutally murdered and Sean is brought in to work on the case. Dave turns out to be the prime suspect in the murder and Sean along with partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) must find the killer before Jimmy turns towards his own ways of retribution.
Eastwood does a brilliant job of giving his noir a very gritty atmosphere with the Boston neighborhood around which the film is set providing the perfect backdrop. The film is captivated largely by an aura of pervasive bleakness with lots of dark lighting which could easily be mistaken for bad cinematography. Eastwood tries to recapture the very essence of Lehane's work and exploits every single dimension of his directorial skills while avoiding the use of trendy editing and camerawork. Mystic River thereby remains true to the classic American decree on the mechanics of film-making.
However, it's the acting and eventual execution of the plot that makes Mystic River an exhilarating ride. Penn gives his usual intensive delivery in playing the struggling and grieving father. The often underrated Kevin Bacon is effortless in his portrayal of the homicide detective partly owing to his on-screen association with Fishburne. Robbins plays the complex character of Dave with such conviction that often makes it agonizing to watch. His performance however fades in comparison to Hayden's Celeste whose descent from the faithful to the confused spouse is done so remarkably well. Eventually, the collective performances succeed in making Mystic River more of a cinematic experience than a whodunit episode. You might figure out the culprit miles before the ending, but by then it just wouldn't matter.
The only visible shortcomings the film suffers from are the typical inevitable ones which arise from adapting material from a book. Even though the film runs just under 140 minutes, there isn't room to accommodate every aspect of Lehane's best-seller. Robbins' character traits go out of sync during a few brief moments while the sub-plot concerning Sean and his estranged wife doesn't really develop well and hence remains ineffectual. Credit must be given to Helgeland for remaining as faithful as possible to the source material but ultimately there is a sense of emptiness resting beneath the subtle overtones of a wonderfully crafted Eastwood flick. Mystic River is a wonderful cinematic experience generated by some great acting, directing and story-telling. Definitely the best that 2003 has to offer so far! - Snider Rodrigues