Vengeance Is His

Forgive me, Father: Sean Penn in 'Mystic River'
Warner Bros. Ent

It goes without saying that vengeful violence is the nexus of Clint Eastwood's oeuvre as both actor and director, but never in his career has brutality been so ferociously distilled or fearsomely adumbrated as it is in the murky but fecund Mystic River. Here a sudden impact will not stand simply as object lesson, cynical comeuppance, or macho joke. Eastwood's interests lie less in an act of brutality itself than in its terrified prelude and shell-shocked aftermath, its ebb tides and ripple effects, its viral properties and means of transmission. "It's like vampires," splutters the damaged-beyond-repair Dave (Tim Robbins) to his wife in an eruption of horrified self-recognition. "Once it's in you, it stays." That's the same lesson learned by vehemently reformed outlaw William Munny in Unforgiven, Eastwood's acknowledged masterpiece and Best Picture winner.

Mystic River flows from two main tributaries: the tragic moment when three childhood friends began to part ways, and the upheaval that twists their paths together again. Some 30 years ago, as his pals Jimmy and Sean looked on, Dave got into a car with pedophiles posing as a cop and a priest; they kept him for four days before the boy escaped. He recovered from the ordeal enough to marry and bring up a family, while semi-reformed criminal Jimmy (Sean Penn) eventually opened a convenience store in their working-class, gentrification-bound Boston 'hood and Sean (Kevin Bacon) entered the police force. It's Sean who's assigned to investigate the fatal beating and shooting of Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum), killed on the same night that Dave stumbled home to wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) at three in the morning with someone else's blood on his hands.

In many of his directing efforts, Eastwood seeks a John Ford-style interplay between action-suspense and shaggy comic relief, but here he moves--often clunkily--between revenge tragedy and cool policier. Daggerlike edits juxtapose feral arias of grief and the businesslike, seen-it-all banter of Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), who at first suspect Katie's baby-faced boyfriend Brendan (Tom Guiry) of her murder. Brian Helgeland's screenplay, a largely faithful adaptation of the 2001 novel by neo-hardboiled dynamo Dennis Lehane, encompasses both flights of vernacular Shakespeare and strained, movingly banal small talk. (A typical grace note: Jimmy tells Dave sheepishly that he doesn't have enough room in the fridge for all the sympathy food that his friends have brought him.)

The Shakes parallel runs thickest in the film's pair of almost unrecognizably dissimilar Lady Macbeths: kind, mousy Celeste, who washes Dave's crimson-stained clothes but feels a damned spot on her conscience; and loyal lioness Annabeth (Laura Linney), the wife Michael Corleone might have wished for. For better and worse, Mystic River doesn't fall easily into a single genre category; it gestures toward but never entirely embraces the lean-and-tight procedural of L.A. Confidential (which Helgeland also adapted), the Greek-operatic surge of Rocco and His Brothers, or, yes, the baroque chill of the Godfathers--to which Eastwood pays homage in the crosscutting between a First Communion ceremony and the discovery of Katie's mangled body. The film is neither cerebral nor visceral, despite the powerhouse emotional resources of the cast. Of the stellar crew, only the usually redoubtable Robbins falters, hefting a bit too much sad sack onto Dave's defeated shoulders, though the script works wonders in subtly externalizing the labyrinthine torments in the corridors of his mind.

After the recent New York Film Festival press screening of Mystic River, a reporter asked Eastwood whether his film represented an "atonement," presumably for the body count amassed by Dirty Harry, Josey Wales, and sundry other payback perpetrators--on either side of the law--whom Eastwood has incarnated. The filmmaker answered in the negative, but allowed, "Times change, people change, and that's life." But in terms of Eastwood's script choices, his latest represents not so much a significant change, but a logical progression from a movie he made a decade ago, the off-kilter and underappreciated A Perfect World, which also delved into the sabotage of childhood and the ugly hopelessness of attaining revenge. Mystic River's casting further resonates with the wages of vengeance. Robbins directed Penn as a murderer bound for lethal injection in Dead Man Walking, an intelligently anguished consideration of retribution and redemption; Penn's more heavy-handed The Crossing Guard and The Pledge--the latter adapted from a Friedrich Dürrenmatt novella--got a stranglehold on similar themes. Helgeland, Lehane, and Eastwood all owe a debt to Dürrenmatt: His revisionist hard-boiler conjured a bleak universe ruled by anarchic chance, where eye-for-an-eye lust can only taint the avenger with the same wickedness that so wounded him in the first place.

"I've always been fascinated by the stealing of innocence," Eastwood said at the NYFF, and, as tough-minded and bravely grim as Mystic River can be, he might be forgiven for occasionally treating his viewers like guileless, distractible youngsters, whom he nudges to attention via concussive flashbacks and outbursts of redundant exposition. Eastwood does successfully harness his tendency toward reiteration in the film's abundance of noirish doublings. Dave is twice seen getting into a car, both vehicles bound for roads to perdition. One of his abusers ostentatiously sports a gold ring inscribed with a cross, an image later magnified in the huge cross tattooed on another character's back. Sean's estranged wife calls him daily, but never utters a word, a silence shared with Brendan's mute brother. (Who is this inconsequential kid that the film keeps throwing him puzzled, wary glances?) Sinister camera angles rhyme and echo; red herrings not only proliferate but spawn their own twins. And two deaths, far apart in the movie's trajectory, beget two fades to white. In one, a gun blast blows out the screen. After the other, the camera's eyes lift helplessly heavenward, seeking out the great beyond, but only staring into the void.

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