Sean Penn plays Jimmy Markum, a grieving father, in director Clint Eastwood's film (courtesy photo)

Eastwood moves East for a New England tragedy

By the time Jimmy Markum's wife, Annabeth (Linney), tells him: "You are the King," we know we have been witnessing something that aspires to Sophoclean tragedy. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane and named for a murky flow beside Boston, Mystic River is a tale of violent and misdirected revenge that culminates in a catastrophe its human instruments expedite while trying to avert.

While a state police detective named Sean Devine (Bacon) is sworn to uphold the laws of Massachusetts, director Clint Eastwood leads a laboratory demonstration in the laws of cinematic gravity.

The somber drama opens with a shot of two men on a ragged porch discussing the Red Sox - the kind of thing we talk about when we can't or won't discuss essential things. Mystic River is a movie of silences, in which terseness is the local virtue and its curse. "Say it loud," says an accuser to the man he is threatening to kill. "Admit what you did, and I'll give you your life." Much of the plot is propelled by the characters' inability to acknowledge the truth about themselves. It is a story about Irish-Catholic working-class families that are held together by fierce bonds of love and loyalty, but lack the capacity for genuine intimacy. Children keep lethal secrets from their parents. More important than he at first appears, an adolescent character nicknamed "Silent Ray" can hear but remains mute. When Sean's estranged wife calls him at crucial points throughout the proceedings, she is mum at her end of the telephone, refusing to say a word.

Mystic River
Dir. Clint Eastwood; writ. Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by Dennis Lehane; feat. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney (R)
Repressed memories of abuse propel the action and compel calamity in Mystic River. In the opening sequence, set in 1975, three 10-year-old boys are playing in the street outside their houses. Two of the trio - Sean and Jimmy - have finished carving their names into fresh cement on the sidewalk, when a stranger interrupts the third - Dave Boyle - in flagrante delicto. Claiming to be a policeman, he orders Dave, who has not finished expressing himself on the wet pavement, into his car. An impostor and a pederast, he drives the boy off and confines him to a dank cellar where Dave endures four days of sexual slavery before managing to escape.

Three decades later, Sean is a detective, and Jimmy, who once served time for robbery, runs a grocery store in the old neighborhood. Dave, who still lives nearby, now has a son of his own near the age he was during his harrowing ordeal. Tormented by nightmares and fantasies, addled by alcohol, and obsessed with vampires, Dave seems never to have gotten over his childhood trauma. And Jimmy is haunted by alternative history: What if he, rather than Dave, had been forced into the car that fateful day in 1975?

Left, Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne in Mystic River (courtesy photo)

Sean, Jimmy, and Dave run into one another occasionally, but they are no longer buddies. However, their fates are again linked when Jimmy's beautiful, beloved 19-year-old daughter, Katy, is murdered. Sean is assigned to conduct the investigation, though Jimmy, overcome by wrath and woe, directs his thuggish pals to track down the killer on their own. Acting more oddly than usual, Dave, who returned home bleeding the night of Katy's death, is suspect even to his distraught wife, Celeste (Harden).

Never trust a stranger, according to the unspoken code that governs lusterless life beside the Mystic River, where everyone becomes a stranger. The recurrent motif of someone getting into a car driven by another is a visual reminder that danger lurks in letting go. Despite a few unnecessary digressions and a bothersome, redundant final scene, Eastwood's understated style parallels the silences that insulate, isolate, and destroy his characters. They inhabit a world in which laconic men are in control, or at least prove their masculinity by acting as if they - and not the force of Nemesis - could hold control.

Mystic River is a theatrical work, built on performances designed to knock your socks off, even in chilly New England, where the woolen socks are red. Especially notable is Sean Penn's turn as Jimmy Markum, a grieving, raging bull and a play thing for the cosmic toreador. •

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