Three childhood friends play hockey on the streets of a close knit Boston neighbourhood, are distracted by an urge to carve their names on wet cement and eventually halted from activity by a man pretending to be a cop. Dave, the most vulnerable of them, is taken into custody, only to be molested for days, until he makes his eventual escape. The incurable scars are thus planted that forever effect, pursue and eventually mould the lives of these three individuals and those around them. 'Mystic River', equal parts crime thriller and an exploration of guilt, finds director Clint Eastwood and writer Brian Helgeland returning to top form in one of the best movies of the previous year.
Tim Robbins plays Dave as a grown up man, many years later, who carries the consequences of that day as an aura of timidity, regret and shame. He is married to Celeste (a continually frightened Marcia Gay Harden) and has a son with whom he likes to play baseball in the backyard. Jimmy (Sean Penn), also one of the three kids from that day, grows to be a reformed local hoodlum who runs his own convenience store, while Sean (Kevin Bacon in a career best performance), the third of the trio, is now a homicide detective.
As destiny would have it, the three of them, now barely acquaintances, cross paths again, when Jimmy's eldest daughter (from his first marriage) is found murdered; Sean and partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned investigators on the case and Dave is held as one of the prime suspects since he saw her the night of her disappearance and returned home with blood on his dress and a knife wound. It may sound like a crime thriller, which it is, but in a more profound way, than say, Eastwood's earlier 'Blood work'. The police procedural is well done, but more absorbing are the depths to which the story takes us, be it in the grief of the funeral arrangements, the inability to communicate, human miseries, character motivations and the immaculate performances of all involved.
Below the layer of unity that the after-effects of the murder form, are the amplifications that each individual slowly finds himself drawn to. Jimmy, whose past as an ex con seems to be catching up with him, feels partly to blame for his daughter's death. Bacon feels uneasy with his association to these men, further exacerbated by the fact that his wife recently left him, calls up regularly, but refuses to speak. In fact, central themes of the tale recur on multiple levels; such as the silence of Bacon's unseen wife or that of a character that remains mute, which echo the speechlessness of the townspeople in a sullen closing sequence that is so perfect in its depiction of the will to survive, it leaves a much stronger impact.
The combination of a great script and superior direction alone cannot make a standout motion picture, not without effective performances, which are truly immaculate here, down to the last supporting character. Penn, who has rightly had the lion's share of media coverage for his role, is aptly supported by a fine Laura Linney as his dominating wife, along with Robbins, Bacon and Marcia Gay Harden. Like the best films of any given generation, River finds that rare balance between mans primal need to protect his family and his association with both his past and the place where it took place, making it one the most elegant dramas of recent times. - Faizan Rashid