Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is a thriller, wrapped in a murder mystery, guided by a haunting childhood experience. Set in Boston, the film begins with three boys playing street hockey and lose their last ball in the storm drain. With no game to play, young Jimmy finds some drying cement and a stick. He writes his name, then Sean, timid Dave goes last, but only gets two letters in when a man interrupts, “You boys think it’s okay to destroy municipal property?” Scared, the boys assume the man is a cop and he takes Dave away without much fuss. Apparently, nobody gave these boys the “Stranger-Danger” talk. From a minimum of words and images, we assess that young Dave was locked in a basement, sexually assaulted and escaped through the woods four days later.
Skip ahead twenty-five years and the boys are grown and have grown apart. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a remarried widower favoring his nineteen year old daughter from his previous marriage, Katie (Emmy Rossum). He’s also a convenience store owner and spent two years in jail sixteen years ago. Dave (Tim Robbins) is devoted to his son, playing catch with him everyday and taking him on walks through the old neighborhood. Dave’s wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) is devoted to him, even though he can be distant. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective with Boston’s homicide department. When Katie is found murdered after the same night Dave came home late covered in blood, the three lost boys are brought back together and we assume we know how everything will play out.
Sean Penn’s portrayal of Jimmy earned him the Oscar for lead actor. He is able to pull off the family man side as well as the jail hardened man, seeking revenge on his daughter’s death. His greatest moments are his depictions of grief with his face contorting in agony not even realizing he’s crying. In the scene where Katie’s body is discovered, Penn raves, spits and wails like he’s going mad. He becomes a frightening image and I’m not surprised that he requested an oxygen tank after shooting that scene.
In contrast, Tim Robbins won the Oscar for best supporting actor by playing Dave with a different kind of intensity. He’s very calm, soft-spoken and seems distantly remorseful about Katie’s murder. His horrible childhood experience has made him an enigma we’re afraid to touch. It has caused him to become very close to his son and inspires bedtime stories of a boy escaping from wolves in the woods. He’s very creepy and obviously messed up from his trauma, but is he dangerous? And if so, to who?
I try not to give anything important away in my reviews, but I have to advise first time viewers not to assume anything right away. I made the mistake of relaxing through the middle of the film, assuming the most obvious connections. Because I had my mind set, the film felt sluggish for a while and when events started to turn I felt a little frantic, asking myself, “How did I not see that?” Perhaps that’s what the plot is supposed to do, mislead you into a false sense of security then light a fire under your ass until the end. Well played Mr. Eastwood.
“Sometimes I think, I think all three of us got in that car.”