Mystic River

Oct 29, 2003 at 12:00 am

The film opens years ago in a tough part of Boston, where neighborhood kids Dave Boyle, Sean Devine and Jimmy Markum carve their names in some wet cement until a man who seems to be a plainclothes detective is demanding answers of them. Soon, the man has whisked Dave away. After four harrowing days of being trapped in a cellar by the “cop” and molested, Dave escapes, but is forever changed.

This incident is but a dim memory many years later, when they’re grown up. Dave (Tim Robbins) and Jimmy (Sean Penn) are still walking the same streets. Dave is sporadically employed, paunchy and jowly, caring for his young son and watching a lot of television. Jimmy is a tattooed ex-con gone straight, now running a corner store and doting over his daughters. One night his oldest daughter is the victim of a shocking murder.

That same night, in the wee hours of the morning, Dave comes home to his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), with his hands slashed and somebody else’s blood all over him. He claims to have been attacked by a mugger, but Celeste doubts him silently. She is not reassured to hear he was one of the last people to see Jimmy’s daughter alive that night.

The calamity brings Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), now a police detective, back to the block. He must race against time to find the killer before Jimmy’s neighborhood toughs dispense their own justice. Did Dave do it? Will Celeste crack and tell Jimmy her suspicions? Can Sean find the truth? This thriller seems to ask if even a tightly knit neighborhood is ripe for an urban lynching.

As you’d expect from a cast of lifetime actors, the acting, the chemistry, even the dialect, are all believable. Penn’s performance is intense and energetic, but Robbins’ job is harder, as he must scare us without losing our sympathy entirely. Bacon is credible as the stoic cop haunted by the absence of his estranged wife, and Marcia Gay Harden gives an excellent performance as a wife who gradually becomes maddened with suspicion.

The cinematography and set design combine to create a dimly lit world of dingy interiors and washed-out exteriors. More than eye candy, the backdrops are often right for the action, such as the clinical embalming parlor where Jimmy swears vengeance, or the bridge over the Mystic, where Sean feels the old neighborhood’s pull.

In Mystic, you get the sense that police and criminals are similar, and that cops actually admire talented crooks. Both cultures are permeated with the coldness of men who huddle and grin over tales of steak knives stuck in collarbones.

There are major problems, though: Clint Eastwood’s directorial self-indulgence, the plodding editing, the excruciating length, the airy and useless musical score, and the ludicrous choice to have Sean’s wife represented by a pair of oversized lips.

What begins as a good script disintegrates disappointingly toward the end. What should be a thrilling plot twist involves mere coincidence and cliché. Also, for a film that seems like a long speculation on family and justice, its characters in the end are all ethically impoverished people to whom sticking together means freezing others out.

E-mail Michael Jackman at [email protected].