Graced with Eastwood’s disciplined and unobtrusive direction, and with truly distinguished performances by Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn (the original boyhood trio), “Mystic River” nevertheless falls short of greatness for one reason: the unbearably theatrical dialogue (some straight from the novel). Although Eastwood wisely chooses to keep directorial flourishes to a minimum, trusting the plot and his superb cast to supply the gravity the film demands, the script fails him. It is full of pretentious writing-school stuff that’s supposed to elevate the material, but ends up bordering on self-parody.
Fortunately, the dialogue cannot completely distract us from what is at the heart of the film: an unflinching portrait of men and women under unbearable pressure, giving new life to the English-class dictum that character determines fate. Tim Robbins, playing the grown-up kidnapping victim, superbly captures the combination of furtiveness and intermittent withdrawal that pegs a trauma survivor. His childhood friends, played as adults by Bacon and Penn, have similarly been shaped by memories of the crime. Hoping to cleanse a stain that can never be washed away, Bacon’s character has become a homicide detective. Penn’s Jimmy Markum, however, has moved in the opposite direction. Very much alive to the threats his world poses to him, as a young man he becomes a hood, protected not by the law but a reputation for coolly administered brutality. By the time the film catches up with him he has labored to turn himself into a family man with a legitimate business. But his raging vengefulness — like the prison tattoos we glimpse on his arms and neck — is never fully concealed. It is his daughter who is murdered, and he is not a man to be kept waiting by the justice system. Watching him writhe in compelling grief, we are reminded of such landmark moments in film history as Marlon Brando in “Last Tango in Paris,” wailing over his wife’s corpse.
One of the wonders of the film is that Penn and his colleagues manage to do so much with weighty dialogue that would sink lesser actors. Writers who want to imbue the trials of normal people with the grandeur of Greek tragedy face a terrible challenge: to make their characters’ words carry a heavy freight of meaning without losing the feel of natural speech. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland attempts to fudge his way past this difficulty by making some lines realistic, and flying into the stratosphere with others. In realistic mode, Helgeland traffics in the tough-guy talk of “NYPD Blue.” Bacon, especially, seems to enjoy biting into this canned ham, but we can only pity Tim Robbins when his marginally educated character is made to describe himself as “the boy who escaped from wolves … living in a world the others never saw … unseen except as a flare in the corner of your eye,” and on and on. Occasionally the script even lurches into the bizarre, as it does when Laura Linney suddenly seems to be playing not Annabeth Markum, but Lady Macbeth, declaring to her momentarily wavering husband, “A king knows what to do, and does it. … You could rule this town.”
Such hokum, although distracting, does not swamp the plot or the performances. “Mystic River” has moments of great power, and an integrity that very few contemporary films can equal. ***1/2 S
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