“There are stories a river can tell. And truths it cannot hide. There are ways it brings us together that we may never see, connecting us with places never suspected. Places like fear, like betrayal, like murder.”
One thing you have to say for Clint Eastwood. In his later years as a director and producer of films, maybe from Unforgiven onward, he has selected some of the most compelling stories for his film projects. You get the sense that he hasn’t been in this for the money in a long time. You easily believe that he doesn’t make a film unless it reaches him completely and deeply. Think about his most recent films: Letters From Iwo Jima, Flags Of Our Fathers, Gran Torino, Unforgiven, and yes, Mystic River. He’s turning 80 now, and so he’s not what you would call prolific anymore. It’s as if he understands there are only a finite number of films left that will bear his name, so he has decided to make every last one of them count. Someone once joked that when Clint Eastwood asked him to be in a movie, the actor asked how much money for the part. When Clint said, “Only $100,000.” The actor quickly replied, “Who do I make the check out to?” There’s a level of respect and reverence that goes beyond his steely look and terse one-liners. Getting a part in a Clint Eastwood movie seems to make everyone “feel lucky”, and it always “makes their day”. I’ll never get to play a part in an Eastwood film, of course, but those same remarks apply to me or anyone who is about to sit down to an Eastwood film, whether he’s actually in the movie or not. Mystic River is no exception.
The story is about as simple as it gets. A trio of childhood friends experience a tragedy, drift apart, and are thrown together in a murder mystery that recalls their horrible memories and brings new tragedy to all of their lives. Simple as it gets, right? Not when Clint Eastwood is at the helm. He’s assembled an incredibly effective cast. Optioned a powerful story. And simple takes so many turns into emotional and psychological allies that it remains simple … simply complex. In other words, business as usual.
It begins with three 11 year old boys playing street hockey in their working class neighborhood in Boston. When they notice a slab of wet cement they, like all young boys already eager to leave their mark on the world, begin to scrawl their names. Along comes a “detective” who scolds the trio. He demands that David get into his car so that he can be driven home, just a couple of blocks away. Of course, David doesn’t make it home. He ends up held by two pedophiles for four days until he can escape.
It’s 30 years later, and the tragedy has caused the close friends to drift apart. David (Robbins) has never gotten over the incident and bears the shame into adulthood. He doesn’t know how to communicate with his wife and clings to his young son for dear life. Jimmie (Penn) has done a couple years in prison for burglary and now owns a corner market. He has a wife and three daughters. Two are very young, but one is 19. Sean (Bacon) has become a State Police homicide detective. The former buddies become embroiled in a new tragedy when Jimmie’s 19 year old daughter is murdered. Sean and his partner Powers (Fishburne) catch the case. Soon David is the prime suspect, starting with his own wife, and Jimmie is the kind of man who takes the law into his own hands with the help of his prison buddies, the Savage brothers Nick (Nelson) and Kevin (Wahlberg) who attempt their own investigation of the crime. David has to hope that Jimmie isn’t convinced he is guilty. Because someone has to pay; maybe everybody.
The film is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, a Boston native known for writing working class stories from the streets he knew as a kid. As simple as it all sounds, the film is loaded with nuance and rich performances. It’s more like a Shakespearean tragedy than anything you usually see in a modern film. The story turns out to be not so simple, but the lesson certainly is. Tragedy begets tragedy. If you’re a fan of tidy endings and the good guys getting the bad guys clean and sure, you’ll be frustrated by this film’s unsettling conclusion.
I’m not a fan at all of either Sean Penn or Tim Robbins. They have allowed their extremist political views to overshadow their work, thus reducing their effectiveness. I will admit that that doesn’t seem to apply here. Clint keeps them in line and inspires passionate and real performances by everyone involved. It’s hard for me to admit, particularly after Penn ripped off Mickey Rourke at the Oscars a while back, but you can pick out either Robbins’ or Penn’s performance here as Oscar material. Both won here, and this time Penn’s award was well deserved as was the supporting statue that Robbins took home. Eastwood should have gotten a statue for direction. He was nominated, as was Marcia Gay Harden for Best Supporting Actress. The film cleaned up at the festival circuit taking in 41 awards on 69 nominations. At the box office it was a moderate to good success pulling in about $90 million on a $25 million budget. Not bad. Not bad at all.
Mystic River is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1 codec at an average 30 mbps. At times the film has a very muted appearance. Eastwood is trying to build atmosphere, and he does so by varying the image itself. Things like focus and clarity reflect the moods being presented and should never be confused with flaws in the transfer. OK, so this isn’t one of those eye popin’ HD films that makes you want to show off your system. It is eerily effective and faithful to the original release. Black levels are strong here, providing an inky depth that makes the climactic scene, which takes place in almost complete darkness a powerful moment in the film. I’ve never been to Boston, but I recognize this kind of neighborhood from my early years in Philadelphia. I have to believe that the image captures that particular atmosphere just perfectly. It’s a crucial element in the story that this Blu-ray release truly brings out.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio does a wonderful balancing act here. The performances present us with plenty of nuance in voice level and quality. This uncompressed presentation reproduces everything with obvious care. It might not be the most aggressive mix, but I challenge anyone to avoid getting pulled into this thing completely. Eastwood is back with another subtle score here. It is often soft and very lazy in tempo. It cuts through without needing to be harsh or intrusive. Dialog is always well placed and easy to understand.
There is an Audio Commentary with Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon. The guys are obviously friends and work well together, but there was something about this one that irritated me. I won’t deny it has a lot to do with my own feelings about Penn. I really would have rather have had Clint.
While the extras maintain the VC-1 codec, they are presented in surprisingly low standard definition bit rates. I’m talking well under 4 at times.
Beneath The Surface: (22:52) Dennis Lehane begins by talking about his novel and the reluctance he felt to allow a film to be made. Eastwood changed his mind. Doesn’t he always? This is all really just interview snippets with cast or crewmembers sitting down and offering their thoughts on the material. The tone is very introspective and laid back.
Bravo TV Special – Mystic River From Page To Screen: (11:32) A lot of this is repeated footage from the first piece, and I found nothing new here at all.
The Charlie Rose Show Interviews: (1:51:23) Three Charlie Rose show segments. The longest and best is his sit down with Clint Eastwood from 10/8/2003. There is also one with Tim Robbins from 10/13/2003, and Kevin Bacon from 12/26/2003.
It’s one of those deep stories that won’t sit for anyone needing clean endings. You could say that nothing ends up resolved at all, but I wouldn’t go quite that far. You will be left with the feeling that there is plenty of unfinished business. A rather staged looking scene at the end attempts to carry that feeling forward, but it was my least favorite part of the film. It’s an attempt at giving those folks who need one, a resolution. Whatever it is about this film, it gets under your skin and stays there a while. “It’s like vampires. Once it’s in you, it stays.”