Clint Eastwood will probably be most famously remembered for the notorious tough-guy persona which he embodied in his early career as an actor. That undeniable image defined his career in the public eye, even though he has strayed from that image for a very long time.
The now-73-year-old actor and director has helmed 24 films spanning several genres and narrative forms. His most recent film, the brilliant “Mystic River,” is testimony to his many abilities as both a filmmaker and an artist. It is one of the most compelling and emotionally engaging films of the year so far, and easily one of the best.
The film concentrates on three childhood friends whose lives were parted by tragedy at a young age before being re-united by the past in a somewhat different form some 30 years later. They are Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins) and Sean (Kevin Bacon), and we meet them as kids in the film’s opening scene, in which the boys decide to write their names in wet cement. As they’re doing this, a car pulls up to them and a man comes out flashing him their badge, attempting to reprimand them. He forces Dave to get in his car, and Dave, not knowing what else to do in such a situation, does.
None of the boys know that the man is a pedophile, not a cop, and Dave was missing for four days before he was able to escape and return home.
Thirty some odd years have gone since that day, and things have never been the same among the three. Each of them still resides in the Boston area, but they have grown apart and are more of acquaintances than friends. Sean has gone on to become a homicide cop who turns to his work when his personal problems seem to get out of hand. Jimmy is the owner of a small grocery shop, and although he has a criminal background, he feels he managed to put it behind him, especially now that he has a wife and family. Also, Dave is still a part of the neighborhood, but he has clearly been affected by what happened to him during those four days. Though he is somewhat vacant, he is a loving husband and a dedicated father.
One night, Dave comes home covered in someone else’s blood, explaining to his wife that he was mugged. The next morning, Jimmy’s daughter is found murdered, and Sean has to be the one that reveals it to him in a scene of raw emotional power. The film hits an emotional crest at that point, and after that, the story slows down for reflection. It then takes on a more somber tone as emotions continue to run high while the three men are united again by an unspeakable tragedy.
Much of the emotional grounding of the story is rooted in the character of Jimmy, a man who realizes his imperfections and tries to cope with the death of his daughter, who in his eyes is far more deserving of life than he is. He tries to keep his emotions in check, and for much of the time does, but the pain is too much for him to handle. Penn keeps us riveted to the screen with his haunting portrayal as Jimmy. This is one of his finest performances and will most likely be remembered come Oscar season. Bacon and Robbins also deliver dynamic performances in their crucial roles. The supporting cast that Eastwood assembled together is also stellar, and includes Laurence Fishburne as Sean’s partner and Marcia Gay Harden as the troubled wife of Dave.
Aside from Penn, who is among the finest actors working today, the most impressive aspect of this film is Eastwood’s directing. Not once does he go over the top or take the easy way out in presenting the complexities of this story and its characters. Eastwood knows how to tell a good story, that is no secret, but he is at his best when he is focusing on the characters, trusting and investing in them. And he has done just that with “Mystic River,” arguably one of the most ambitious and accomplished films he has ever made. The film is not about any one fixed idea or message; instead its getting at something much deeper. Every aspect of this film is brilliantly rendered and developed, and Eastwood weaves it all together into a powerful cinematic experience that’s capable of evoking the complex emotions that its characters endure.