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Laramie Movie Scope: Mystic River

A depressing film about revenge, guilt, murder and other fun subjects

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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October 20, 2003 -- “Mystic River” is a film which should probably be confined to art theaters, but it is getting a wide release because of its famous director, Clint Eastwood. You think “Unforgiven” was dark, this latest film from Clint is way darker than his Oscar-winning Western. The film starts out with child molestation and gets a lot more sinister as it goes along.

The opening flashback takes us back a number of years to three boys playing in the street, Jimmy, Dave and Sean. Dave is abducted by a couple of child molesters (one of them a priest, naturally), while the other two feel guilty about letting him get into that car. We then go to the present time and all three have grown up and have gone their separate ways. Jimmy (Sean Penn of “I am Sam”) has a criminal past, but currently runs a grocery store in his old neighborhood in Boston. He is married and has several children, one of whom is having her first communion. Dave lives nearby. He is still scarred by his past, but is functioning with a wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden of “Pollock”), and a child, who he carefully protects. Sean (Kevin Bacon of “Novocaine”) is a police detective. Jimmy's daughter is brutally murdered, Sean investigates the case, and Dave is a suspect in the murder.

Sean doesn't want to believe that Dave could have murdered the girl, but his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne of “The Matrix Reloaded”), is more objective about that. The two laboriously collect clues to the murder, while Jimmy and his hoodlum friends vow to find the killer and execute him before the police solve the case. The film explores the way in which Dave's childhood tragedy has affected all three men. Jimmy's rage at his daughter's killer is explored in great depth. Another theme of the movie is the relationship of the three men to their wives. Jimmy's wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney of “The Life of David Gale”), supports her husband, even in his murderous quest for revenge. Celeste, however doubts the innocence of her husband, in part, because of his habits of keeping secrets and lying. She is afraid that Dave may have killed Jimmy's daughter. Sean and his wife are separated. They don't speak to each other, but they want to. She repeatedly calls him, but can't bring herself to speak.

These curious, silent phone calls are similar to the failed attempts by Dave to communicate with his wife. He has held his tragic secrets inside so long he can barely open up. He tells one lie after another about what really happened the night Jimmy's daughter was killed. Dave still has a lot of rage because no one came to help him when he was abducted as a child. He had to rescue himself. He still feels that no one else can help him with what he is going through now. These feelings of isolation are shared by most of the main characters in the movie.

As you can see, this is an extremely dark movie and it is more depressing that I can really convey here without giving away the ending. The film is pretty slow moving, too. While a commercial film is more about entertainment, this is more about, for want of a better term, art. The acting is excellent, especially by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden. This is a consumate example of ensemble acting. A lot of care is taken to establish and define these characters, something seldom done in movies nowadays. The use of location cinematography by Tom Stern (“Blood Work”) is also very good (the film was shot on location in Boston).

I do have some minor objections to the film's climax, but it does continue the movie's theme of tragedies that arise out of a failure to communicate. There are other troubling things about the film. The plot relies on a lot of coincidences. One of the film's messages is that tragedy begets more tragedy. It argues that a person violated as a youth may have to pay an even bigger price in later years. If you are in favor of capital punishment, you probably won't like what the film has to say about retribution. While there is a faint glimmer of hope at the end of the film, the rest of it is relentlessly bleak. If you are looking for some kind of emotional payoff, forget about it. This film rates a B, mostly because of the great performances.

Click here for links to places to buy or rent this movie in video and/or DVD format, or to buy the soundtrack, posters, books, even used videos, games, electronics and lots of other stuff. I suggest you shop at least two of these places before buying anything. Prices seem to vary continuously. For more information on this film, click on this link to The Internet Movie Database. Type in the name of the movie in the search box and press enter. You will be able to find background information on the film, the actors, and links to much more information.

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Copyright © 2003 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)