"Sometimes I feel like all three of us got into that car that day," Kevin Bacon says toward the end of Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's despairing film about childhood innocence and adult guilt, the ties that bind and the bonds that break. When they were kids, Bacon's Sean Devine and Sean Penn's Jimmy Markum watched as a third kid, Tim Robbins' Dave Boyle, drove off with two strangers who claimed to be plainclothes policemen. They weren't policemen, they were child molesters, and although Dave escaped after four days in a dark basement, the damage was done. Evil, that slippery serpent, had been set loose in the boys' Irish-Catholic neighborhood, with its dilapidated three-flats and crosses on bedroom walls. And 25 years later, the serpent is still slithering through the streets of South Boston, not unlike the body of water that gives the movie its title. Some rivers don't wash away our sins.
Or so Mystic River would have us believe. That's a pretty defeatist attitude for a guy who used to take care of such problems with a .44 Magnum. And the film is being hailed by many critics as the latest Station of the Cross in Eastwood's career, the culmination of his years-long reassessment of the vengeance-is-mine ethos he once embodied as The Man With No Name and Dirty Harry. It's also being hailed as a masterpiece ' "an historic achievement," according to The New Yorker's David Denby, which makes me wonder whether I saw the same film. I found Mystic River effective, even moving at times. I also found it thin and ponderous, a rather routine melodrama that's been pumped up with hot air. Eastwood is striving for the tragic grandeur that made Unforgiven so memorable, but he's missed on both the grandeur and ' at least as understood by, say, Shakespeare ' the tragedy.
In Shakespeare's tragedies, fatally flawed individuals bring about their own destruction (with a little help from their friends). In Mystic River, it's just the opposite: The innocent and pure never had a chance. And one act of destruction just leads to another. After a prologue that would be a lot more harrowing if Eastwood had flexed his directorial muscle, we're introduced to the three boys-into-men. Bacon's Sean is now a cop with a busted marriage. Penn's Jimmy is an ex-con with a corner grocery store. And Robbins' Dave is...well, not much of anything. With a look of fear permanently inscribed on his face, he spends his days playing whiffle ball with his son. The three haven't seen much of one another in recent years, but they're about to be reunited by another visit from the slippery serpent. Jimmy's daughter, upon whom he's pinned all his hopes for redemption, will soon be found brutally murdered.
Penn appears to have arrived on the set loaded for bear, and he doesn't hit a false note the entire movie. Jimmy is a feral creature, a street kid who may end up ruling the streets someday, but there's something else in him, too ' a poetic sensibility that's at war with his baser instincts. Like Shakespeare's Macbeth, Jimmy is spooked by the evil at loose in the world and in his soul. And when his older daughter fails to show up for his younger daughter's First Communion, he can sense a shift in the balance of nature. It's payback time for crimes he's not even sure he committed. Then, when Dave turns out to be the chief suspect, Jimmy has to weigh his need for redemption against his need for revenge, loyalty to others against loyalty to himself. Unfortunately, the role's underwritten. Penn spends most of his time wallowing in grief, which is touching, even impressive, but dramatically inert.
The whole movie seems to be wallowing in grief, the cinematic equivalent of a dirge. And Eastwood, who's never moved all that fast, either in front of or behind the camera, isn't about to pick up the pace now. He wants us to spend some time with these people, settle in, and this gives the movie an emotional heft it might not otherwise have. It's only later that you start to think you've seen these people before, in television shows like "Law and Order." Robbins' Dave, for instance, is almost a clichÃ, despite Robbins' defiantly interior performance. Wouldn't it have been more interesting if Dave didn't seem like the loneliest person on the face of the earth, the little boy who never grew up? Dave becomes a suspect because he came home the night of the murder with blood on his hands. But we're offered no plausible motive for why he would kill Jimmy's daughter. Perhaps the devil made him do it?
In Mystic River, everybody's guilty and everybody's innocent, which seems like a pretty accurate description of the world as we know it but also makes us not care about the outcome all that much. When we find out what actually happened to Jimmy's daughter, it seems like a cop-out, part and parcel of the Hobbesian state of nature that the movie presents. "Life is poor, nasty, brutish and short," Thomas Hobbes famously wrote, and that's how it seems in Mystic River. For all the excellent performances, none of the characters really goes anywhere. And only Laurence Fishburne, as the one person (a cop) who doesn't have a stake in this godforsaken neighborhood, offers any humor or liveliness. The rest seem to be sleepwalking through some night of the living dead. They might choose the path of righteousness if given half a chance, but why bother? They're damned if they do, damned if they don't.