One of my persistent complaints about Hollywood movies, especially those of late, has been their overreliance on and obsession with plot, at the expense, invariably, of any thematic development. Mystic River, Clint Eastwood’s twenty-fourth feature film, is a case in point. In the course of its numbing 2¼-hour length, a number of themes are shot out, like cannon balls, and scattered about: the impact of the past on the present, generally; specifically, the legacy of a traumatic childhood event; the destructive nature of a lie in a marriage; the participation of violence in American culture; Hitchcock’s “wrong man” theme; and others. Yet Eastwood declines to pursue any and all of these in favor of merely working his way, leadenly and lumberingly, through the overelaborated mystery plot that the scenarist, Brian Helgeland, drew from a novel by Dennis Lehane. The whole thing is twists and turns—tricks played on the audience. Mystic River is that familiar Hollywood product that has nothing to show, and nothing to say about anything.
Punctuated by different aerial shots, at different times of day and night, of the river in question to try to justify the film’s meaningless title (corpse after corpse has been dumped into this river), Eastwood’s film begins with three boys, friends, in a Boston neighborhood in the early 1980s. One is mouthy, one is shy, and the other is nondescript. One day, in full view of the other two children, the shy boy is abducted by two men impersonating cops; the boy is held prisoner for four days, during which time he is repeatedly sodomized. He manages to escape. He grows up to be an alcoholic malcontent haunted by his past. The mouthy boy grows up to be, among other things, a killer, but he is currently a family man operating a neighborhood store. The nondescript boy grows up to be a cop—a real cop—whose marriage has foundered on his issues with emotional intimacy. Dave, the tormented one (Tim Robbins, looking puffy and dejected), is married (I think) to the batty cousin of mouthy Jimmy’s (second) wife, but even Dave and Jimmy have long since ceased being friends. Nevertheless, the paths of all three fellows tightly cross again once Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter is bludgeoned and then shot to death. Dave’s batty wife, on next to no evidence, weirdly suspects that her spouse committed the crime and, even more weirdly, shares this suspicion with Jimmy (that’ll console the grieving father!), who thus murders Dave at the very moment that nondescript Sean, who is supposed to be somewhat mystical (his family name, punningly, is Devine), and his partner, Whitey, are arresting the real culprits: two schoolboys and friends, one of whom is the pretend-mute half-brother of the teenaged victim’s boyfriend. Calling Carson McCullers!
I suppose that this is a silly plot; but, truth to tell, any similarly elaborate plot so insisted upon would probably turn out just as silly in a film. What makes the film bogus is that no idea, no theme, is pursued; nothing is searched out. Rather, the material is structured so that all sorts of revelations tumble out of the plot at roughly the same moment. The ironies are heavy-handed, and Eastwood’s ludicrous à Coppola cross-cutting heavily underlines the already heavy-handed ironies. The thunderburst of plot revelations is supposed to hide the holes in the ground. For instance, since Dave’s wife is acting so batty (despite prodigious competition, Marcia Gay Harden delivers the film’s worst performance), why on earth does Jimmy believe her, even when he is face-to-face with Dave, who (convincingly) protests his innocence until he confesses only on Jimmy’s promise that he, Jimmy, won’t kill him, Dave, but merely turn him over to the police? In the real world, or in another film, one might say that Jimmy’s perception is warped by his grief over his terrible loss; but that won’t compute in this film, in which Sean Penn’s close-to-the-vest performance as Jimmy scarcely suggests a father enraged by grief. Penn is a hundred times better than ever I have heretofore seen him, but he would have to be many times better still to make sense out of Jimmy, an artificial character who does whatever he does simply because the plot demands it of him. Indeed, that’s the general rule for human behavior in this annoyingly farfetched film.
Obviously, the “whodunit” element merely distracted Eastwood from pursuing some theme, or at least from showing us something that reflects on some segment of reality. Instead, things should have been disclosed chronologically, and the plot—which includes two neighborhood thugs, brothers, who “help” Jimmy investigate his daughter’s death—should have been (greatly) pared down, also to facilitate the exploration of some idea or theme. This film is like The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999): all trickery and nothing else.
However, those who don’t mind being contemptuously manipulated by movie people, and have a stomach for bloody violence, should enjoy themselves. No others need apply.