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Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River: Post-Mortem

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I am utterly mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which has been called a “historic achievement” and compared to Greek tragedy. The critics have clearly responded to the ambitions of Brian Helgeland’s script (adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel) and Eastwood’s direction rather than to what’s on the screen: Mystic River is the drabbest, most monotonously solemn and yet ungainly “masterpiece” imaginable. The movie has especially been praised for getting the feel of the neighborhood in which the action takes place, but there’s not a soul in it who doesn’t trudge around as if aware of the impressive tale being told. (Ice Cube’s variety show classic Friday (1995) has an infinitely more detailed sense of neighborhood life, with its patchwork of pleasures and disasters.) The story doesn’t make much sense but the moviemaking is so flatfooted it hardly matters.

I don’t know what exactly triggered critics to rate this movie so highly but I do know that I haven’t read a sensible analysis of the narrative, and without that you can’t assess its pretensions to tragedy. (Stephanie Zacharek’s piece on Salon sees Eastwood’s limitations as a moviemaker and makes the best case for his sensitivity to the material, but still wildly overrates the experience of the movie.) This means, of course, that there’s no way to attack the movie’s pretensions except by giving the story away: so this will be a review in the form of a post-mortem (i.e., all spoilers).

In a prologue set in 1975 three Irish-American boys are writing their names in wet cement in a working-class section of Boston. Two pedophiles pretending to be cops take Dave, the gawkiest, weakest-appearing among them, away in their car, supposedly to tell his mother about this act of vandalism. Instead they molest him for four days until he manages to escape. We then see the three boys grown up: Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who owns a corner grocery store and dotes on the oldest of his three daughters; Dave (Tim Robbins) is a shambling near-wreck, who tries to instill more confidence in his small son than he ever had; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife has walked out on him but continues to call him, though she can’t bring herself to say anything when he answers. The men are brought into close contact again for the first time since childhood when Jimmy’s favorite daughter Katie is found murdered.

The night of the murder Dave comes home with a slash across his belly and blood on his hands. His creepmouse wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) accepts his story of having murdered a mugger in self-defense and cleans up the evidence. The audience knows that Dave saw Katie dancing on a local bartop with her girlfriends and the only reason we don’t think he must have killed her is because that would be too obvious. But Dave keeps changing the story of how his hands got torn up and he seems to be undergoing a crisis remembering his escape from his rapists. He cannot, however, explain what he’s feeling and so is kind of scary. Eventually Celeste becomes so frightened she moves out and confides her fears to Jimmy. Jimmy has the Savage Brothers, two local thugs who take orders from him, drive Dave out to a riverfront bar for drinks. When Jimmy shows up, wearing black gloves, he scares a confession out of Dave by saying that if Dave will admit what he did he’ll let him live.

Dave, however, didn’t kill Katie. The night she was killed he got bloody murdering a man he caught having sex with an underaged boy hustler in a car. Dave’s confession and Jimmy’s murder of him owe a debt, I imagine, to the scene in The Godfather (1972) in which Michael offers Carlo his life if he’ll confess to setting Sonny up. The difference–and it’s major–is that Carlo did set Sonny up. That’s the kind of situation tragedy deals in: Michael’s action is not entirely misplaced but he carries it out at the peril of his soul. (He is, after all, killing the father of his sister’s children, and when he lies about it to his wife Kay we feel the door shut between them for good.) Michael is dispensing justice in a way we feel is brutally wrong and the implications of which are shot suggestively but made clear.

In Mystic River Jimmy is plain wrong–not just for taking the law into his own hands but in getting the wrong guy. What does the movie make of Dave’s being killed for the wrong murder? Nothing. The man Dave kills isn’t human in the movie’s terms. Dave’s killing of him is treated as an alibi, a realistic result of his molestation as a boy, and maybe an act of sanitation. The script sets up this interlocking, ongoing fiasco but doesn’t push beyond the facts on the surface. There’s no larger awareness of Dave’s participating in a culture of violence that ironically snares him in a way he wasn’t expecting and that not only isn’t just but is almost comically stupid. Once you know that Dave is innocent of Katie’s death, Jimmy’s retributive anger seems awfully coarse, like acting–which, with Sean Penn in the role, heaven knows it is. Actually, this could have been a great way to play it, that Jimmy’s paroxysms of violence come about when he feels the need to live out the role of neighborhood capo. But it doesn’t appear to be in the script that way and since it’s an interpretive rather than a visceral point it’s not really in Eastwood’s range. Instead he has Penn hit the nail square on the head, right through the flimsy board.

The killing of the wrong man in Mystic River is closer to a liberal anti-lynching movie like William Wellman’s Ox-bow Incident (1943), in which the victims are innocent of the crime for which they’re strung up, than it is to tragedy. The Ox-bow Incident doesn’t develop its theme beyond the procedural warning that mob justice is bad because you might execute the wrong guys (a warning that doesn’t differentiate lynching from state execution). Tragedy would be possible only if the lynch victims were indeed guilty, that is, by implying some balancing of justice that felt horrible and understandable at the same time. (The only potentially tragic blindness is that of the Southern major played by Frank Conroy, a man whose disgust at his son’s sensitivity causes him to overplay his own masculine-martial rigor, but the movie treats him as a sadist who deserves to die.)

The script of Mystic River piles on the elements leading to Dave’s death but they don’t inform each other. The psychological disorder caused by his molestation makes it believable that Dave couldn’t credibly defend himself against the false suspicion of murder, and since the murder he did commit is one he’d rather not talk about he does look guilty, but there’s no thematic connection between child molestation and Katie’s death. The makers want us to feel that the crime committed against Dave makes it inevitable that he be falsely accused and punished, that having been molested marks him the way his weakness as a boy marked him for the pedophiles in the first place. If that’s the case, however, then his murder of the child molester is unnecessary and in fact dilutes this meaning because coming in bloody the night of Katie’s death would cast suspicion on Dave whether or not he’d been raped as a boy.

From another perspective, Dave murders the pedophile that night because he’d been raped as a boy, but that’s simply a plot connection, a way to make it plausible (and supposedly excusable) that he was out killing somebody that fateful night. (It leaves open the possibility of thinking, “Damn, if only he’d murdered the pedophile a week later!”) That is, the various baleful actions in the movie are a pretty random assortment jury-rigged for plot purposes. (And not that sensibly: wouldn’t it all be tighter if Jimmy’s son had been killed?) Though Sean and Jimmy at one point speak elegiacally about Dave’s abduction, saying it’s as if all three of them had got in the car, the abduction has nothing essential to do with either Katie’s or Dave’s murder. It might as well have been aliens who abducted Dave; it could have been anything that set him up to be misunderstood.

There should also be some significance to the actual killers’ motivation. Instead, Katie turns out to have been killed accidentally by her boyfriend’s mute brother and a friend, waving a gun left in their apartment by the brothers’ criminal father before he disappeared long ago. That father was the man who turned state’s evidence and sent Jimmy to prison, for crimes committed by the Savages. When Jimmy got out of jail he murdered him (in the same backwater where he later kills Dave) and he had told Katie that she could never go with anyone from that family. But the boys didn’t know about their father’s relationship to Jimmy, and Katie’s death was an accident.

So the family rivalry and retribution plot is woven into, and yet entirely incidental to, the contemporary action. (This is a movie with a veritable school of red herrings swimming through it.) Thus, at the heart of this supposed tragedy is a meaningless coincidence. In this interview with The Boston Phoenix, Helgeland compares the script to the story of Oedipus, but Oedipus’s killing of his father wasn’t a coincidence; it was fated so that even though it was foretold to him he couldn’t avoid it by no matter how much effort. In Mystic River the fact that the killing was an accident means there’s no sense in which Jimmy tragically set his daughter’s death in motion by his own behavior earlier. She, too, might as well have been harmed by aliens.

In addition, Jimmy is precluded from the category of Greek tragic protagonists because they’re noble individuals, caught in a double bind like Orestes, or acting with heroic vigor but blindly all the same like Oedipus. If Jimmy were a tragic figure at all he would have to be a modern tragic figure for the simple reason that his status is low and his actions, and even his intentions, are unjust. This doesn’t prevent Al Pacino’s Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon (1975) from achieving tragic resonance, but that movie has an acute sense of irony that this buffoon, robbing a bank to pay for his male lover’s sex change operation, is tragic both because of, and in spite of, all he does. Sonny’s gallantry in trying to take care of his heterosexual family and his male lover is cartoonish but nonetheless intensely spirited. His defiant gesture in robbing the bank is absurd and finally futile but as grand as he is capable of making it. In fact, it becomes grander as it approaches closer and closer to failure, not because of the style with which he works the sympathetic crowds gathered outside the bank, but because he becomes more and more conscious of the price he will not be able to avoid paying and still he goes forward.

Eastwood and Helgeland are not, to say the least, adept at irony. They present Jimmy straightforwardly as someone we’ll identify with, but I can’t figure out why. Irony would seem to be the only way to make this hotheaded little man a protagonist. After he got out of prison and murdered the man who sent him there, Jimmy swore to go straight in order to take care of his daughter whose mother had died of cancer while he was put away. Then the daughter for whom he went straight is killed and Dave looks awfully guilty, so Jimmy kills him. In other words Jimmy stays straight … unless someone makes him really really mad at which point he does him in. He’s a street tough who has no other way to deal with misfortune than by ultimate violence and he’s not even smart enough to investigate properly or patient enough to wait for the cops to do the job for him. (He and the Savage brothers attempt to crash the crime scene seemingly with no concern for the destruction of evidence.) In outline Jimmy is a vicious clown, but Eastwood presents him as a nobly misguided paterfamilias. And as Sean Penn plays him he’s all impacted rage, which registers with me more as a vice than a heroic trait–a flaw all by itself is not automatically a tragic flaw.

The movie is weirdly distended. Every scene plays out with the same drawn-out rhythm, as if Eastwood were willing to wait all day for the important details, and yet there aren’t enough details to make sense of the characters and their relationships. Harden’s performance is touching and relatively precise, but we need more information. Does Celeste suspect what Jimmy will do once she unburdens herself of her suspicions? Is she trying to get rid of Dave in a passive way she won’t feel responsible for? Sometimes you do get intriguing information, but too late. Jimmy’s wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), for instance, gives a Lady Macbeth speech after she’s figured out what Jimmy has done to Dave–the last five minutes of the movie is an odd time to be establishing her character. Is her push supposed to have influenced Jimmy in bringing his investigation to a brutal and inaccurate conclusion? Is she compensating for the fact that he loved the daughter of his first wife best? (In its own terms this big speech doesn’t even make sense. She tells Jimmy that everyone is weak except them and that he could rule this town. He owns a corner grocery store–what the hell is she talking about? Is this supposed to be a forecast of the future or merely a transparent justification of Jimmy’s crime? Is she really a schemer or just afraid that remorse might make him confess and take the prop of her family back to prison?)

Eastwood handles the story in the most literal-minded way. The one thing I’ll say for the movie is that it isn’t a melodrama, that is, it’s not just a story of innocent victims and black-souled villains. It tries to approach a goon like Jimmy objectively, but Eastwood and Helgeland lack the literary culture to pull it off. Mystic River aspires to tragedy though it proceeds by a particularly sludgy naturalism; what it achieves is a grim and misshapen set of interconnected anecdotes. The movie is a nearly unendurable sit because there’s no rhythmic variation and not one moment of lightness in these people’s lives. I’ve never been to a funeral where people didn’t crack jokes; the misery among people who seem genetically unequipped for levity, much less happiness, is not very dramatic. These working-class characters are treated as victims, not in a tragic, or Marxist, sense but because it’s literarily impressive in some vague way the makers think of as “tragic.”

Eastwood’s lameness as a director is most evident in his work with the young actors, in the opening scene especially, where the boys might as well be wearing masks. Despite the pedestrian direction the adult actors are all pros and can more than take care of themselves. They respond with as much power as generates Oscar buzz without totally abandoning discipline. (If there’s a scowling-growling-and-yowling competition any time soon, Penn should get a lifetime achievement award for this performance alone.) The only relief is inadvertent: Penn’s hideous coif, which looks like a black cat nestling on his head; Robbins’s reading of Dave’s ineffably “poetic” account of his escape from the pedophiles; and one good laugh when maestro Eastwood’s symphonic score surges as the camera pans up to the sky.

Overall you feel Eastwood doesn’t get the material at either the high or the low end. He respects this material far beyond its deserts but there is such a thing as behaving too respectfully. In fact, the only scene that has any snap is the one that resembles melodrama, when Dave outplays the cops who have brought him in for questioning and comes across as pretty creepy. Otherwise, the Jimmy and Dave story seems like a botched version of Fritz Lang’s suspense classic M (1931) in which Peter Lorre plays a man who abducts, rapes, and murders little girls. The police, desperate to catch him, put a dragnet over the entire town. This disrupts underworld activity to such an extent the criminals start investigating on their own and at the climax are holding a kangaroo-court trial (in which Lorre’s confession reveals the desperation of a psychotic killer more piercingly than any other movie ever has) when the police bust in and take the pathetic killer into the official legal system.

In Mystic River Eastwood wouldn’t dare make Dave guilty of Katie’s death, as Lang did, because then he wouldn’t be sympathetic. But he does expect us to sympathize with Jimmy, apparently unaware that we could understand him without liking him if the script had a more sophisticated shape. M is structured to run on the irony of the parallel systems of detection. In Mystic River we have the Savage brothers investigating Katie’s death at the same time that Sean and his partner are tracking down witnesses and evidence, but Eastwood drops and picks up these strands according to no discernible narrative pattern. Even without making the elements that lead to Dave’s murder fit together in a way that bears some significance, we would respond more if Dave’s murder came at the climax of a suspenseful back-and-forth between the cops and thugs. All I felt was relief that this movie, which I swear plays out in longer-than-real time, must nearly be over.

You can find this review and a lot besides at The Kitchen Cabinet.

Alan Dale is author of Comedy Is a Man in Trouble: Slapstick in American Movies.

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  • Leila

    Apparently, you blogs have no more knowledge of molestation than hogs. Forget the tangled interweaving of plot, the grimness of it all, etc. It’s a realistically symbolic rendition of the sequelae (“consequences” to you) for many molested kids. They carry it with them forever, and, as a group, die younger than actuarial probabilities for the population-at-large.

    It’s called “soul murder” by CSA (Child Sexual Abuse) experts. And that’s what this film is all about. So stuff all that poppycock where the sun don’t shine when you know nothing of the subject you are critiquing.

    Respectfully,

    Leila

  • W. C. Parker, Jr. Ph.D.

    This is one the most fatuous, intellectually pretentious reviews of a movie or a novel I have ever seen. The review is also notable for its numerous slurs aimed at the director and actors.

    The movie of course makes sense in its own frame of reference. Among other things, it suggests that a traditonal pattern of morality may still exist among people who are outside the pale of conventional institutionalized morality.

  • Sara

    In your review, you critique Eastwood and claim that he is too literal. However, I think you are the one that is being too literal in this interpretation of this movie. If you just read between the lines a little bit, you would see how the complexities by which Eastwood guides the audience’s mind from being suspicious Dave to being sympathetic to his plight, and from feeling nothing but remorse for Jimmy to disappointment and disgust at how far he will go (all without investigating). I don’t think that Eastwood was trying to make Jimmy the “good guy” at all, not even with Annabeth’s speech. I viewed the entire ending as a giant, tragic irony, in the fact that the audience assumes that there is meaning behind a crime that turns out to be meaningless; there is irony when we learn that an innocent (well innocent of Katie’s murder at least) and deeply vulnerable man was senselessly killed because of Jimmy’s (in addition to the audience’s) assumption of the significance of Katie’s murder; and there is deep tragedy in the fact that no one bothered to understand the man that got stuck in the middle – Dave.

    I will admit, the accents got schticky, and Annabeth’s character development occurred at an odd time, but I think there is a great deal of melodrama in this film, and perhaps the only reason you did not notice it is because you are guilty of exactly that which you accuse Eastwood of doing – taking the plot too literally. If you just explored the subtleties, the poignancy of this film would resonate with you.

    Thank you,
    Sara

  • Brian

    While I agree with another comment that the review was a bit pretentious, I still feel it has many valid points about the film. I think the film might have tried to hard in what it was trying to accomplish, which ended up making it feel disjointed at times. Ultimately though I think the strong performances of an extremely accomplished cast and the ideas the film presents (and the way it tries to present them), is, in my opinion, makes many people give the film more respect that in deserves. It’s not a bad movie by any means, but it’s not the masterpiece that many claim it is either.