2. Mystic River
“Mystic River” is one of those rare convergences of talent in timing in cinema where a talented cast, crew, and writer are all doing their best work. It kind of irks me that Clint Eastwood is the director in my #2 spot; I think he’s probably the most overrated director of the decade, and the movie he made after “Mystic River” would be in the running for my least favorite film of the decade. But I can’t deny the power and mastery of “Mystic River,” and I have to give Eastwood credit, at the very least for assembling a talented cast and creating an atmosphere where they could do solid work.
The script comes from a book by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote “Gone Baby Gone” and “Shutter Island.” It’s set in Boston, of course; all great crime thrillers of the ’00s were set in Boston. As it opens, three boys are playing street hockey, when an ominous vehicle pulls up; the men inside say they’re cops, and one of the boys believes them, and gets in. They’re not cops.
Cut to two decades later; the three boys are now men who barely know each other. Sean Penn is one; he’s been in and out of prison, straightened his life out, and runs a convenience store. Kevin Bacon is another; he got out of the old neighborhood and is now a cop. Tim Robbins is the little boy who got in the car; he’s married to Penn’s sister-in-law and has a son of his own, but wanders around with a pained look on his face and talks often about wolves and vampires.
“Mystic River” is a crime thriller; and it’s a crime that brings these three back together. Sean Penn’s daughter is murdered; Bacon is the cop on the case, and Robbins is the prime suspect. He can’t account for a couple of hours on the night she was murdered, and his wife reports that he came home with blood on his clothes. Played (masterfully) by Marcia Gay Harden, Robbins’ wife is more afraid of Penn than in love with her husband, and does some terrible things as a result.
“Mystic River” is a somber movie, elegantly paced, and some may find it entirely too dark and serious for their tastes. But I think the absence of flash and pop and spark – aside from what the actors generate, which is considerable – serves a thematic purpose. The first time I watched “Mystic River,” I watched it with an art school student, and immediately afterwards, he said the movie was “Darwinian.” It took me a while to even figure out what he was talking about — he was a great artist, but not a great verbal communicator — but when I did, I was amazed. “Mystic River” is a movie so rife with symbolism and ideas that it’s amazing it works as a crime thriller, and it works so perfectly as a crime thriller, you (like me) may never see the symbolism at play in it.
Three boys at play in the street, and one of them is taken away and hurt, a hurt that he carries with him into adulthood. One of the boys grows up to be a cop, one a thug, and the third, somewhere in between. The cop is frustrated in his career, and loses his wife; the thug goes to prison and comes back and tries to live a reformed life. By the end of the film, the third — the injured and weak one — is dead, the cop has his wife back and knows who his enemy is; the thug has returned to a life of crime, more powerful than he ever was (there’s a wonderful, chilling “Lady MacBeth” speech delivered by Laura Linney near the end.) This is a movie about the psyche; it’s about good, and evil, strong and weak. The good and the evil must rid themselves of the sick and the weak in order to fully be good and evil, that’s what my friend meant when he said this film was “Darwinian.” Survival of the fittest, elimination of the weak.
I’m not saying I agree with this philosophy; certainly not. I think it describes the way cinema works much better than the way life works. On a basic level, in our drama, our desire is to see the powerful good overcome the powerful evil. Movies open with the warrior, the good guy, leaving behind everything that is vulnerable and weak in order to do battle with the evil that has arisen. Batman puts on a mask to protect the innocent around him. Soldiers go fight wars on other continents. Kung Fu fighters check into monasteries in order to leave “the world” behind, and then check out, to go fight evil. “Mystic River” is the prelude to all movies; here’s dramatic action about preparing for dramatic action. Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon must do battle, but before they do so, they must eliminate the weak, the conflicted, the injured parts of themselves. It’s terrifying and disturbing; it’s also riveting and brilliant. That’s why “Mystic River” is my second favorite movie of the decade.