In Clint Eastwood‘s Mystic River, a tragedy that shattered childhood innocence reaches out to destroy lives decades later. In a way, one of the main characters is murdered as a twelve-year-old but takes thirty years to die.
Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) grew up in the same South Boston neighborhood. One day when they were twelve, Dave was abducted by two pedophiles posing as cops. He was rescued days later but the damage was done.
Flash-forward thirty years and Jimmy is an ex-con gone straight, owning a convenience store in the same Southie neighborhood, married to Annabeth (Laura Linney), who’s given him two daughters. Sean is a homicide detective partnered with Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). His distant relationship with his estranged wife is similar to Frankie Dunn’s relationship to his daughter in Million Dollar Baby. Dave works as a handyman, married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), but is clearly still not right after his childhood trauma.
Jimmy’s family is getting ready for his youngest daughter’s first communion, but his oldest daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is nowhere to be found after a night out with her friend. Anger over her thoughtlessness turns to worry when the police descend on the neighborhood and Katie’s car is found near the park. Fear turns to grief and rage when Katie’s body is found inside an abandoned zoo.
What only Celeste knows is that Dave came home the night before, covered in blood, with a dubious story about being mugged and fighting off his attacker.
Sean and Whitey are investigating the murder and Whitey’s suspicion quickly turns to Dave, even if Sean is reluctant to suspect his childhood friend. Southie loyalties run deep. So deep, in fact, that Jimmy’s old gang comes to his aid, looking into the murder and intent on dishing out their own brand of justice.
In lesser hands, this story could have been a routine police procedural, all about solving the crime and catching the killer. Clint Eastwood, directing from Brian Helgeland‘s script based on Dennis Lehane‘s novel, has made it about almost everything but. The investigation is handled realistically but it’s the inner lives of the leads that are the main focus. All three of the main characters have their emotions held tightly in check. Tim Robbin’s performance as Dave is a masterful portrait of someone who would suffer a complete breakdown if he lets even one feeling escape. Sean Penn’s Jimmy keeps his rage wound tight as a watch and Kevin Bacon’s Sean can’t seem to take the simple step of reaching out to his wife.
True to Eastwood’s empathetic filmmaking style, the women are also full blooded characters, secondary to the men in this case but equally human. Marcia Gay Harden is heartbreaking as the wife who loves her husband even while suspecting the worst of him. Laura Linney’s Annabeth takes a coldly pragmatic position on the story’s final resolution. She knows who she married and believes rough justice has been done.
In my opinion, Mystic River is every bit the equal of Million Dollar Baby. Come Oscar time, the latter film had the good fortune of not being caught under the wheels of the Lord of the Rings juggernaut.