Eastwood's masterclass in visual probity

Mystic River (2003)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane
Rated MA, 137 minutes
4.5 stars

Mystic River is Clint Eastwood’s best movie since Unforgiven in 1992. It probably won’t be as popular, because he’s not acting in it and it’s not resolved with the neat purity of a gunfight, but it crowns his long career as a director. He made Play Misty For Me 33 years ago: 23 movies later, at age 73, who expected him to make something this taut and uncompromising?

The film is a wintry drama, partly about a murder, set in Boston. It’s outside the Hollywood mainstream, even for Clinton Eastwood Junior, whose choice of material is sometimes unpredictable. It’s 137 minutes long, methodically paced, but superbly economical. There is no ramping up with fast cutting or steroidal music (Eastwood wrote some of the score himself). The direction is monastically unobtrusive.

It’s as if Eastwood’s taciturn cowboy persona has become a directing style. His old-fashioned American rectitude mocks the way most studio movies are now made: he’s old school and getting more so. Mystic River is a lesson in visual probity. Not surprisingly, the studio (Warner Bros) saw it as a chance to be cheap. Eastwood says he worked for scale wages, in order to get it made, just as he did on Play Misty for Me. That’s an indication of how much he wanted to do it.

A lot of Eastwood’s later films are concerned with regret. There was the regret of his secret service man at not saving Kennedy in In The Line of Fire (which he did not direct); his regrets about his relationship with his daughter in Absolute Power; the missed chance for a life together in The Bridges of Madison County. In Mystic River, the regret goes deeper. It’s more like grief that goes back generations and marks all of the characters in Buckingham, a (fictional) working class neighbourhood by the side of Boston’s Mystic River.

This is a film with an Irish sense of generational doom: 200 years of Irish immigration will do that to a place. Dennis Lehane, who wrote the original novel, is Irish-American from south Boston. His story is built on deeply ingrained Irish tribal beliefs: the sense that the sins of one generation are paid for by the next, that family is all, that hatred is something to bequeath. This gives the story a grand sweep: the characters must struggle against the belief that their fates are predestined.

In the prologue, three 11-year-old boys playing street hockey have their futures altered by a man who says he’s a policeman. As Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine wonder what to do, the man takes their friend Dave Boyle away in his car. An elderly man in a priest’s collar sits in the front seat. We can tell from the forlorn shot of Dave’s face in the back window that something awful is about to happen.

Twenty five years later, Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Dave (Tim Robbins) are brothers-in-law, still living in the same clapboard streets. Jimmy is married to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and has a couple of kids. He runs a convenience store, but has served time. Dave is married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and they have a boy about 10. Dave is quiet, but permanently ruffled. Robbins plays him with a slight stoop – nothing overt, but we can see the damage he carries. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective who has escaped the neighbourhood, until the body of a 19-year-old girl is found in a ditch. Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) identify her as Jimmy Markum’s daughter.

Eastwood does not hurry the emotions after this tragedy. They are the point of the film, so he sets about uncovering them with care. He knows he has time and the actors to do the job, and it’s part of the pleasure of the film to see great actors so deeply inside their roles. The performances are not gestural, as sometimes happens when an actor is stronger than a director. Sean Penn, in particular, can be too big. He’s not like that here. His performance dominates the film, but as much for its sorrow as anger.

Post script with spoilers: Watching this again recently, I was struck by the film’s one real weakness – the wan music. Eastwood’s instincts in this regard let him down, even though he is a passable jazz pianist in his own right. I guess the man can’t do everything. The other thing that struck me was Laura Linney’s terrifying speech at the end, after Penn admits his crime to her. Nothing really prepares us for how harsh she is – but it fits with the depiction of women throughout the movie, especially in Marcia Gay Harden’s weakness, her failure to love her husband enough to believe him when he says he didn’t kill Katie. Women are the mostly silent force behind a lot of the action. It’s almost a film about two different species: men of violence like Jimmy (Penn) and the women who incite some of those violent acts – although Jimmy doesn’t need much incitement given his hurt and anger. In a sense it’s about the way the genders react differently to grief and trauma. Not sure if that comes from Dennis Lehane’s book – but I suspect it does. Mystic River was hugely acclaimed at the time: nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, it won two: best actor for Sean Penn and best supporting actor for Tim Robbins. Marcia Gay Harden missed out on the Best Supporting actress award and Linney wasn’t nominated. Best Picture that year went to Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, kind of inevitably. The other contenders were Lost in Translation, Seabiscuit and Peter Weir’s Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.