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Mystic River

dir: Clint Eastwood
[img_assist|nid=1014|title=Two guys, hanging out, contemplating murder|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=449|height=310]
Such a film growing up in the shadow of Mystic Pizza necessarily must
have a hard furrow to plow.

Even in paying for my ticket at the cinema I inadvertently asked for a
ticket to Mystic Pizza. It's a film and a title hard to eradicate from
one's mind. Who can forget the horse toothed caterpillar eye-browed
Julia Roberts playing the town slut? Lili Taylor playing the same
character she's played in practically every film she's ever been in?
Vincent D'Onofrio not playing a psychopath for once? There's a lot to
recommend it. You could only hope and pray that Mystic River, clearly
trying to capitalise on its successful forbearer with the similarity
of its title, can match its artistic and commercial success.

Yeah, okay, there is no connection between the two films. Old Clint
would probably have drawn either a Colt Peacemaker or a Magnum and
shot the television if he was caught watching something as girly as
Mystic Pizza. Instead he's made a film that somewhat parallels his
earlier masterpiece Unforgiven and exists as this year's In the
Bedroom.

Films like In The Bedroom and Mystic River, which hopefully people
still remember so that the comparison has validity and doesn't just
make readers scratch their genitalia in confusion, exist solely to
comfort middle class people. I shall abandon my flippant tone here for
a moment to make this serious point: these films that appeal to white,
middle-class critics and audiences that think of themselves as
educated and socially-minded, do so because it allows them to
vicariously experience the effects and repercussions of violence
without feeling guilty about. The guilt is transferred because the
manipulation of our sensibilities and morality feel justified despite
and also because of the ambiguity with which the stories are
represented in an unglamorous fashion.

The contrast I'm making is that the same people that would write-off
the latest revenge thriller where some guy whose wife & child have
been killed who then proceeds to go on a kill-crazy rampage as being
mindless, exploitative crap, latch onto films like In The Bedroom and
praise them to the high heavens for being "real", thoughtful and
well-acted.

Whether they are or not is up to the individual to decide. Despite
high calibre casts and acting, these films only barely transcend their
melodramatic, almost made-for-tv origins, which ultimately, at least
for me doesn't make them films that are worth repeated viewings. This
is my essentially long-arsed way of saying that this film is horribly
overrated, in my opinion. It's probably The Year's Most Overrated
Film! They should whack that up on the posters advertising it. It's
not a bad film, but it's hardly worth the ejaculations amongst critics
that it seems to be responsible for.

There is one aspect of the film that I cannot fault for a moment, and
that is Sean Penn's performance. He genuinely transcends standard
melodrama and achieves a quality of acting and character that deserves
the Oscar nomination that it will undoubtedly receive (though I doubt
he'll win). His take on the character of Jimmy balances perfectly
between powerful and raw, and he knows how to manage that razor's edge
walk between the two. At no stage did his character seem anything less
than believable.

Unfortunately, I can't really say that about anyone else. Most of the
other performances range from decent to perfunctory. Kevin Bacon has
the least showy role and stands out the least. It's enjoyable seeing
Laurence Fishburne play a human character again after his unfortunate
decline in the Matrix films into unconscious self-parody. He manages
to provide what little light relief this film has. Most everyone else
does a passable job without particularly dazzling, which fits with the
mundane nature of the story.

I'm on a sliding scale here, I have to admit, of mentioning items in
terms of their declining quality. My greatest problem with the film is
in the performance of Tim Robbins, an actor that I generally like,
whose (in my opinion) gut-wrenchingly awful performance scuttles the
film. His character of Davey, who is supposed to inspire our empathy,
our sorrow at a life destroyed and a man who's lived a life as the
walking wounded, inspired little in me apart from irritation. Robbin's
take on the character, in electing to play him more as a mentally
retarded character as opposed to a man deeply disturbed by the
ruination of his childhood, essentially fucked up any chance I had of
taking the film seriously. I really didn't like his character, I'm
sorry to say it, and the shifts from seeming intensely stupid to being
pretty clever didn't work for me. I'm not comparing him necessarily to
the character in the Dennis Lehane novel, but he doesn't work for me.
And his actions towards the film's end didn't make a hell of a lot of
sense.

Blended with that are his interactions with his wife, played by the
usually dependable Marcia Gay Harden, that get increasingly more
nonsensical. Her character of Celeste starts off reasonably enough,
but for some reason transforms into Ophelia from Hamlet, either that
or she gets progressively dumber as the film goes on. By film's end I
was genuinely shaking my head when she appeared on the screen.

Laura Linney, an actress I very much admire gets to do very little
during the film, until the end where she has an amazing monologue of
disturbing potency. In some ways it recontextualises the way in which
you look at the ending and the characters.

The plot of this long, long film intercuts between the basic police
procedural aspects that are done so much better on your average
episode of Law & Order, and the dramatic elements arising from the
various characters dealing with their grief and their confusion not
only over the murder of Jimmy's daughter but the ambiguous feelings at
least three of them have over the tragic kidnapping of a boy twenty
year's previous.

There's guilt, there's sadness, there's rage, there's cold-hearted
fury, there are no puppies and there is little of any joy to be found
in all this melodrama. I don't agree with the film's scant critics
that compare how the film progresses in a manner akin to that of the
walking speed of your average septuagenarian (like Clint), but I felt
it was long by at least half an hour. The film is well made, but not
extravagantly or flamboyantly so. Clint's made 24 films thus far so he
has no difficulty constructing at least half-way decent films.

Ulimately, Sean Penn is the only reason to watch this film. He can add
this to his list of outstanding career performances, and might add a
certain gold statue to his shelf come March 2004 (which would send
certain commentators and cable channels into an apoplectic frenzy),
but I doubt anyone's going to remember this film in a year or two's
time. It's just not that memorable, as much as I appreciated the moral
ambiguity and the clear difference between this and most other
mainstream films that examine similar terrain.

For once I can't say that they fucked up the ending. The elements as
they are drawn together, where they seem mundane and anti-climactic on
the one hand (the hunt for the killer by the police), and morally
dubious on the other (the hunt for the killer by people who are not
the police, and look nasty and smelly), actually enhances the impact
of the story at film's end. At least for those not turned off by
Tim Robbin's performance (of which I seem to be in a decided
minority). The way in which they treat the character, and throw in a
particular explanatory element very, very late in the film, coupled
with a throwaway line early on, further hurts the credibility of the
Davey character, to the point where it angered me in terms how bloody
convenient it all was.

So make up your own minds. This hasn't been a stellar year for film (I
know, someone's been saying that every year since 1937), and this is
certainly an okay film. It's just not the "kill your parents and
neighbours if you have to in order to get a ticket" kind of film that
some people are saying it is. Then again, what the hell do I know, I
think Mystic Pizza was a far more enjoyable film...

5 trips in the back of a stranger's car out of 10

--
"Here is where we bury our sins, we wash them clean" - Jimmy, Mystic
River

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