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Mystic River

  • compiled by Jeffrey Overstreet Copyright Christianity Today International
  • 2003 1 Jan
Mystic River
from Film Forum,10/16/03

An icon of gunslinger revenge epics himself, Clint Eastwood returns to the screen this week with a drama that explores the darker side of vigilante justice. Winning raves and early Oscar-buzz from critics, Mystic River is a dark, moody journey through grief to anger and, eventually, a mission of violent revenge. The story examines the different perspectives and responses of three men to a grisly murder, and how a traumatizing event from their childhoods influences their behavior as adults.

A troublemaker as a child, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) has grown up into a bitter, dangerous man who is accustomed to settling scores with violence below the radar of the Boston police. Thus, when someone close to him is killed, he sets out to find the killer and bring about justice on his own. While we see him, his picture-perfect wife (Laura Linney), and his beautiful daughters dressed in their Sunday best at the local church, we know that Markum's subversive plans are being carried out behind the scenes.

Sean (Kevin Bacon), Markum's childhood friend, has become a cop, and now he must return to "the neighborhood" to investigate the crime and revisit his old friends, old haunts. He and his contrarian partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) trudge along the trail of clues, trying to get to the truth before Jimmy does.

Meanwhile, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who suffered a traumatizing period of sexual abuse as a child, stumbles through his days with weighty emotional baggage, a tendency towards alcohol, and a feeble grip on his marriage. The murder of his friend Jimmy's loved one, 30 years later, only intensifies the pain of his old wounds, especially when suspicion falls on him. When Dave's wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) comes to believe he is guilty, it comes as a shattering blow to his psyche.

Gerri Pare (Catholic News Service) calls the movie "suspenseful and sobering. Eastwood seems to have come full circle, from once having … glamorized violence to directing more mature films such as Unforgiven and this gritty drama. [He] has a taut narrative to work with and gets some remarkable performances from his cast. Hands down, Penn steals the movie."

J. Robert Parks (Phantom Tollbooth) calls it a "sophisticated portrait of a Boston neighborhood … supported with some sparkling performances and a compelling tale. If you're in the mood for a mature film, you won't go wrong here." And yet he struggles with the film's split-personality as a murder mystery and a psychological drama: "The desire to keep the audience guessing ends up undermining the narrative itself."

While River is drawing many raves, I found it to be an uneven work that grows tiresome in the sullen, pessimistic tone imposed upon it. Penn and Robbins do some impressive work, but when the movie shifts away from them to focus on Bacon and Fishburne, the movie loses momentum and feels like a forgettable episode of NYPD Blue. Women are all portrayed as either fractured and feeble or malevolent and manipulative. Making matters worse, Eastwood's melodramatic soundtrack is too intrusive, too abrupt, and his scene changes are often awkward and jarring.

The neighborhood church is a backdrop for a central scene, opening up possibilities for spiritual exploration within the story. Alas, Eastwood can't find more to say than "evil begets evil," and he can't seem to do more than sigh heavily over his drowning characters. In the world of this story, the men are downcast, the women fractured, the truth is lost, and redemption, joy, and humor are nowhere to be found. In spite of its melodrama, Mystic River is not the profound work of artistry many have declared. Eastwood's Unforgiven remains his masterwork.

Michael Leary (The Matthews House Project) says the movie is loaded with "all the stuff of great contemporary American film. But unfortunately, even though it all is a great idea, Mystic River doesn't quite pan out. Somehow, without any warning at all, everything seems to just fall together in the end in a way that is supposed to register shock. But the lackluster ending really isn't able to muster up more than a stifled yawn."

"The acting is very good," says Tom Snyder (Movieguide), "but the story … takes some predictable and not-so-predictable turns and twists that are too typical of the type of medium-level mystery thriller lurking around too many bookstalls in American airports." He argues that the film leads to a good lesson: "Sin has real consequences in the story of these people's lives."

Most mainstream critics are heralding the film as a masterpiece, and many are calling for Oscar nominations.

from Film Forum, 10/23/03

Holly McClure (Crosswalk) calls Mystic River "an adult murder mystery that is dark, depressing and probably not for everyone. While the ending is understandable, I found it to be … disturbing, leaving me with mixed emotions at how justice was served."

"Eastwood's biggest error is in not ending the film once the murder is solved," says Michael Elliott (Movie Parables). "Instead, he drags out the story for another 20 minutes where it takes such an implausible turn that we have no choice but to utterly dismiss it as ludicrous."

D. J. Williams (Christian Spotlight) disagrees, finding it "a real jewel of a movie. Eastwood has put together a fantastic piece of work. It may be a difficult swim, but this is one River certainly worth seeing."

from Film Forum, 11/06/03

Reviewing Mystic River, Barbara Nicolosi, Director of the Christian film writing program Act One: Writing for Hollywood, says in her blog that critics and Christian friends have exhorted her to see the film because it is "important," "thoughtful," and "provocative." After finally seeing the film, she responds: "I'm sitting here shaking my head wondering, has everybody lost their minds?!?! It is a sad squandering of an incredibly talented cast, in a project that ultimately comes down to the thesis: bad things that happen can screw you up. Mystic River … will add nothing to your spiritual journey on the plus side. On the minus side, it will make you more scared of your neighbor and more paranoid for your kids."

from Film Forum, 11/13/03

Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which took some hits from religious press critics a few weeks back, earns a rave review this week from Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum). She writes, "The slow dissection of the grief and pain surrounding a murder is heart-wrenching under the hand of director Clint Eastwood. The film has many themes: guilt and expiation, ancestral sins, community and belonging. But it is only at the end that the film's major theme is apparent. And that theme is what gives the movie its last good punch. The mystic river is the emotional river of human rationalizations, especially the rationalizations made by Christians who take grace for granted and who create their own ways of atoning for their sins."