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Mystic River

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I can’t help it. I really tried to like this movie, and it actually started out very interesting – with the little boys playing in the street and one of them being kidnapped then. But the way the story went on it got more and more boring. I hoped Mystic River would actually be a lot about a river and nature and stuff, but it wasn’t. Many dialogues, much depression, but very confusing. I think that’s just another movie that lives on a name – Clint Eastwood. Even the appearances of three quite good actors was a disappointment to me – Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon. The movie is currently getting very good ratings, but I won’t rate it all that high: 6/10

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TRAILERS from IMDb

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SYNOPSIS from Rotten Tomatoes

In Clint Eastwood’s MYSTIC RIVER, a murder mystery in South Boston unites three men who have been friends since childhood. Grippingly powerful performances from the entire cast–Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, and Laura Linney–combined with gritty photography, an exceptionally emotional script, and a convincing working-class Boston setting make this film one of Eastwood’s most consistent and penetrating works.

Though they live in the same houses where they grew up, Jimmy (Penn), Dave (Robbins), and Sean (Bacon) have drifted apart over time. Their distance is due to a disturbing and violent episode that occurred when they were children. Even now, as adults married with kids, they have never managed to overcome their fear and guilt about what happened. Dave and his wife (Harden) still live next door to Jimmy, who is married to a tough-sexy blond (Linney) and has three daughters. When Jimmy’s 19-year-old girl is murdered, he turns to Sean, who works as a policeman, and delivers an ultimatum: find the killer fast or I’ll go after him myself. Little do they know, the culprit is the last person they’d ever suspect.

This movie screened in October 2003 as part of the 41st New York Film Festival organized by the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

STORY AND CHARACTERS

From his very first reading, director/producer Clint Eastwood knew he wanted to bring Dennis Lehane’s best-selling novel Mystic River to the screen. "I read the book and optioned it immediately," he recalls. "It’s a riveting story with enormous potential as a film. The characters are complex, interesting and well defined."

Eastwood, who won Academy Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for his landmark Western Unforgiven in 1993, brings a classically spare, candid approach to Mystic River. "This film is about real people trying to come to terms with who they are under very tough circumstances. It needs to be done honestly and it needs to ring true."

Mystic River explores the interwoven history of three men, the terrible events that tainted their boyhood and shaped their futures, and the irrevocable choices they are ultimately forced to make. Individually, these characters must come to terms with their own personal demons, struggling with issues that bring an alarming momentum into the mix.

"Murder mysteries are usually only about solving the crime," says Eastwood, "but in this case the story shows how, beyond the murder, all of the participants’ lives have been altered by the crime. One gets to see the impact a violent act has had, many years after the fact. It’s that tragic circle – all three of these men have unresolved issues in their lives. They have all been traumatized by the past. All became damaged goods."

Childhood friends Jimmy, Dave and Sean grew up together, living and playing on the same neighborhood streets of South Boston. But when a shocking tragedy befell one of them, the boys stopped spending time together and eventually grew apart, each keeping his distance as if the others were living reminders of that devastating time. But while their lives may have led them in different directions, they were all turning away from the same painful place.

When Eastwood began considering what writer could best bring Dennis Lehane’s haunting novel to the screen, "Brian Helgeland immediately came to mind. He really liked the book and after conferring with him briefly, I said, ‘Why don’t you just dig in?’ He ripped right into it, writing the first draft in two weeks. I looked at it and felt it was a terrific interpretation of a complex book, filled with so much discussion and detail."

Casting decisions reflected Eastwood’s sense of purpose and desire for quality without compromise, and a stellar cast was quickly assembled. "I sent the script to Sean Penn and he loved it right away," Eastwood recounts. "Tim Robbins called, and as the word got out, other actors began calling. Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney are both terrific actresses with whom I had previously worked. This was a very pleasant experience because the actors all resonated so well together."

Five cast members are prior Oscar nominees: Penn for Best Actor in I Am Sam and Dead Man Walking – a film that also garnered Robbins a nomination for Best Director – Fishburne for Best Actor in What’s Love Got to Do with It, Linney for Best Actress in You Can Count On Me and Marcia Gay Harden, who won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Pollock.

"I don’t think I could have found a better actor for any of the parts in this film," says Eastwood. "Sean, Tim, Kevin, Laurence, Laura and Marcia are all simply outstanding. I had no doubts about the talent of this cast."

In turn, the cast had no doubt that they were in extremely capable hands. "All of us had the sense that Clint’s storytelling would give the film a clear humility," says Penn, "so our readings were done in order to make ourselves as familiar as possible with the material. In that way, whatever had to do with nuances and character choices became just a shorthand exchange with Clint and we wouldn’t have to refer back to the script. It becomes a cleaner, more decisive process because you know with each take that you can give it everything you have."

"The key ingredient in this film is Clint Eastwood," Robbins agrees. "Clint is a true artist in every respect. Despite his years of being at the top of his game and the legendary movies he has made, he always made us feel comfortable and valued on the set, treating us as collaborators and equals. We never got the feeling that he believed in his legend or asked us to honor it, although we did. It was a really great experience. There was never any kind of pettiness on his set; no screaming or stupid emotional displays from anybody, a very professional, adult environment. There is nothing condescending about the man or his crew and it invigorates you, making you feel like you did when you made your fist movie."

Robbins plays the deeply troubled Dave. "Dave is one of these guys who finds a way to survive and exist despite a past filled with horrific events," the actor muses. "Maybe what he should have done is left that neighborhood and started fresh somewhere, but he didn’t. He’s internalized his painful experience and not talked about it or dealt with it, so it has festered and festered for years. It’s not particularly fun, going to that dark place for long periods of time while you’re working, but fortunately, Clint provided such a professional and efficient environment to work in that it was a pleasure to be able to bring this character to life."

Haunted by the devastating events of his childhood, Dave stayed in the poorer section of town, working menial jobs and eventually starting a family with his wife Celeste. When Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter Katie is inexplicably murdered, the details of the crime slowly emerge and Celeste begins to break down under the weight of her uncertainty and dread.

Harden, who arrived in Boston early to immerse herself in the blue-collar world of Mystic River, felt a kinship with her character. "The story has an immediate, personal connection for me," says the actress, "because Celeste has a young son, and I’m a mother with a four-year-old daughter. It also greatly appealed to me because it questions that moment in life when innocence is lost."

While Dave was just trying to survive and get by, Jimmy followed a more turbulent route, developing into something of a criminal mastermind over the years. Running his own gang at the tender age of seventeen, he seemed untouchable. He married the most beautiful girl in the neighborhood and the two soon had a young daughter. Things might have gone on that way forever, until an associate rolled on him, ratting Jimmy out in exchange for a lighter sentence and condemning him to serve two years at Deer Island.

Tragically, his young wife was stricken with cancer while he was locked up, and when Jimmy got out he found himself a 22-year-old widower and the sole parent to a little girl who barely recognized him as her father. With 5-year-old Katie as his motivation, Jimmy determined to turn his back on his criminal past. Returning to the neighborhood to run a corner grocery, he re-married and had two other daughters. As their family continued to grow, Katie remained the light of his life. On the day she is found dead in Pen Park, that light goes out forever.

"Mystic River deals with a kind of unimaginable pain," says Sean Penn. "I found myself drawing from the writing and the other actors. We spent a lot of time together, reading through the script and trying to find a kind of peace with the things that occur and the choices that are made. Our job was to make these impossibly painful situations dramatically understandable."

Jimmy’s anchor throughout the tragedy is his love for his daughters and the strength of his fiercely devoted wife, whose loyalty to those closest to her knows no bounds. "Annabeth is tough; very, very tough," says Laura Linney of her character. "She’s like a mother lion, very protective, with a huge sense of pride and entitlement. She’s always on guard – she’s got an ‘I dare you’ quality about her."

As Jimmy was serving time, his boyhood buddy Sean aligned with the other side of the law, becoming a Massachusetts State homicide detective. Increasingly alienated from humanity by the never-ending indiscriminate cruelty he sees in the course of his investigations, and separated from his wife except for her painful, silent phone calls, Sean has come to question the meaning of his efforts.

"As adults, all of these men have disconnected from one another," relates Kevin Bacon, who plays the conflicted cop. "Sean moved away and now he spends all of his time trying to solve homicides. His wife has left him, he’s living alone and he has no friends – he’s just walking through life like a zombie."

Sean’s only remaining personal connection is with his partner Whitey. Laurence Fishburne plays the homicide detective, who serves as his partner’s objective reality check. "Whitey is truly the outsider amongst all of these people," says Fishburne. "He doesn’t have any familial or friendship connections."

"A big part of the job for Laurence and myself was to have a real kind of chemistry and complexity to our relationship," says Bacon, "as two dedicated cops trying to solve this murder, which, for Sean, brings him back into his old neighborhood and childhood friendships."

Fishburne stresses the partnership that is the underlying force in their success. "The way I would describe the characters is this: Sean Penn is married to Laura Linney, Tim Robbins is married to Marcia Gay Harden and I’m married to Kevin Bacon. The partnerships that cops have are really like marriages."

Sean has come a long way from the old neighborhood, where Jimmy and Dave chose to remain and raise their families. The three might have lived out the rest of their lives without reconnecting, but they are violently reunited by Katie’s senseless murder. Sean is assigned to the case, and instantly faced with a ticking clock: Jimmy is obsessed with revenge, his rage at the murder of his daughter disguised by a cool, methodically succinct execution plan.

"The story is the most important aspect of the entire project," says Eastwood. "I don’t like intrusions or distractions on the set, and I’ll follow the script as closely as I can. I try to create a comfortable environment where the actors can do their best work and the film can be made in the most direct way possible."

Eastwood was adamant that Mystic River be shot on location in Boston, Massachusetts – even the score was recorded there with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. "I never seriously considered any other location," he relates. "This project belongs in Boston. The city and its neighborhoods are as much a part of this project as the actors. There is no Mystic River anywhere else."

Filmed entirely in and around the city, Mystic River depicts the local neighborhoods and surrounding environment with almost documentary accuracy. The same is true for the interior sets, which were built in a warehouse located in Canton, Massachusetts, a suburb just south of Boston.

Academy Award-winning production designer Henry Bumstead, who won Oscars for his work on To Kill a Mockingbird and The Sting, as well as receiving nominations for Vertigo and Unforgiven, had the responsibility of replicating all of the interiors of the neighborhood homes, as well as constructing the fateful Black Emerald Bar, the location of Mystic River’s most pivotal scene.

Situated at the water’s edge with a breathtaking view of the city skyline near the Mystic River Bridge, the Black Emerald Bar was built from scratch on an empty industrial lot to evoke the setting described in the script.

"I trust Henry Bumstead completely," Eastwood explains, "and I really believe he is the best production designer working in film. His ability to solve creative problems, particularly under deadline, is remarkable. He’s helped me out with western towns, newsrooms, space ships and ocean trawlers. Now, what he’s done with a weathered New England bar is a perfect fit, with just the right visual ingredients. Henry is a special talent and I’m lucky to have him on this project."

In addition to working with the Massachusetts Port Authority, virtually all of the scenes filmed in the city of Boston were done in conjunction with Mayor Thomas Menino’s Office of Special Events, which helped coordinate all permits, traffic control and security. Notable events during production included the closing of three incoming lanes on the Tobin/Mystic Bridge for the shooting of a scene in which Sean and Whitey respond to a road rage accident.

"I’m very happy with the picture’s look," says Eastwood. "The piece was lit to look like a day ending. Before our cinematographer Tom Stern was the director of photography on Blood Work, he had been a chief lighting technician for years, working on many of my pictures under Bruce Surtees and Jack Green."

Another note of interest is the inclusion of Mystic River author Dennis Lehane in the neighborhood Columbus Day parade sequence. Lehane was cast as a local politician, waving to the crowd while sitting on the back deck of a convertible.

The single most unpredictable variable in the film’s production was the New England weather. Fortunately, Eastwood’s focused directing style and the high level of professionalism displayed by the cast enabled the Malpaso company to efficiently complete key scenes, minimizing the necessity for retakes. Likewise, in many instances the New England Fall weather, characterized by intermittent rain and autumn leaves, helped enhance specific scenes.

"I have a great crew and wonderful actors, which makes my job much easier and much more enjoyable, regardless of weather problems or other external circumstances," Eastwood explains. "This affects everything else involved, from set-up to wrap, and limits multiple takes. Sure, we’ve run into rain and wind and some freezing cold nights, but that’s to be expected and with this story, it can work for you. The most important thing is that I have a good team. We get in and shoot what we need and move on. These people know what they’re doing – it’s impressive and sometimes I catch myself watching as much as directing."

Eastwood anticipates that the film will be an entertaining, intriguing and ultimately thought provoking experience. "The story can satisfy the audience on several different levels," he considers. "The ‘whodunit’ fans may be happy with just the mystery and absorb the other content in the periphery. Others will get into the background of the characters and the detective story will be meaningful only in relation to the overall tragedy. The story is layered and as each layer gets peeled off, more is revealed. Every time a question is answered it only raises more questions… I’m looking forward to peoples’ reactions."

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