Monday, September 28, 2015

Murder Most Foul

Film: Mystic River
Format: DVD from personal collection on laptop.

I’ve seen a lot of movies. Mystic River is the 292nd movie I’ve watched this year alone, and of those movies, 233 (including this one) were new to me. This is not an anomaly. Because of this, I’m not that easy to surprise. I was pretty sure I knew where Mystic River was going to go in the first 15 minutes. Then the movies spends the next two hours showing me that I was wrong. This is a film that doesn’t go in the direction I expected. It might start like a cliché, but it certainly doesn’t follow through. That’s always a good thing.

We start with a trio of kids playing hockey on the street in a Boston neighborhood. Their ball goes down a sewer, which forces them to give up the game. They spot some drying cement, and two of the boys scratch their names into it. The third is halfway through his name when he’s accosted by what looks like a police officer. He’s the only one of the three who doesn’t live on the street where the boys are playing, so the “cop” drags him off. It turns out this wasn’t a cop, and Dave, the young boy, is sexually abused for a few days before he escapes. This drives a wedge between the three boys.

And so it looks like this is going to be one of those movies where the boys in a particular neighborhood either grow up to be cops or criminals. And, true to form, that’s kind of what we get. Jimmy Markum (an Oscar-winning Sean Penn) has done two years for robbery and still has criminal connections that he deals with from his corner shop. Dave Boyle (an Oscar-winning Tim Robbins), the one who was molested, is evidently a working stiff. Sean Devine (an overlooked Kevin Bacon) is a detective with the Massachusetts state police. The three men are on a handshake-and-wave basis with each other. This looks like exactly what we think it’s going to be—setting up three former friends against each other on opposite sides of the law, possibly with the one guy stuck in the middle of his two former friends.

And then it doesn’t go there. Instead, three events happen that become the concern of the entire film and tie the three men back together. First, Dave comes home after a night of drinking covered in blood and tells his wife Celeste (a nominated Marcia Gay Harden) that someone tried to mug him and that he fought back and possibly killed his attacker. Second, Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) goes missing, but her car is found abandoned with blood and bullet holes inside. Her body is later found nearby. Third, Sean and his partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne) are called in on the case.

More or less, the rest of the film consists of Sean trying to figure out what happened, Jimmy sending out his own inquiries, and Dave acting suspiciously to the point where Celeste begins to suspect him. Rounding out the stellar cast is Laura Linney as Jimmy’s wife Annabeth.

Mystic River never cheats the story being told. All six of the principle actors are on the top of their games here. Laura Linney isn’t in the film much, but handles her role well as Jimmy’s second wife and step-mother to the murdered Katie. Everyone else here is as good as they’ve ever been. I wasn’t kidding when I said above that Kevin Bacon was overlooked for his role here and I think I can say the same for Laurence Fishburne, who comes across as a no-nonsense cop who just wants to get the job done no matter where the truth leads.

But the film is truly dominated by the performances of Penn and Robbins, who are both accomplished actors doing some of their best work in front of the camera. Clint Eastwood has always gotten great performances out of good casts, and that’s absolutely true here. Penn won this Oscar and it almost certainly came from a couple of specific scenes—the one early on where he is mobbed by cops for breaking into the crime scene and the one near the middle where he places the dress over the body of his dead daughter in the funeral home. Robbins also won an Oscar, that coming almost certainly for the moment when he almost confesses what he has done to his wife and also almost confesses what happened to him when he was a child.

Eastwood’s direction is similarly impressive. He uses the camera well and the story moves along in a way that keeps the audience constantly informed but also constantly in the dark about what is actually happening. Each new revelation comes as a surprise to us just as it does to the characters in the film (which is why I’m particularly vague above). We get no information before we need it, and we always get exactly as much as we need for Eastwood to keep us thinking exactly what he wants us to think.

I’ve often been impressed with Eastwood as a director. Mystic River demonstrates that he is capable of a variety of film genres and his acclaim behind the camera is well deserved. Mystic River is a truly impressive film from everyone involved in it. It’s a gripping and terrible story nearly perfectly told. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend a watch as soon as you can track down a copy.

Why to watch Mystic River: A brutal, human story.
Why not to watch: No good reason. This is worth your time


  1. I felt this was a really good film, too. I was interested to see your title of "Murder Most Foul" from Shakespeare. Laura Linney isn't in the film much, as you noted, but she has one great scene where she's been in the background the entire film, but then she suddenly transforms in Lady MacBeth.

    1. One of the problems I have with coming up with names for posts is that I think of things that I've evidently used in the past multiple times.

      This was a very impressive movie if only because it goes somewhere I really didn't expect.