Dave, a man who's barely there, lulls his son to sleep with stories of a boy lost in the woods who escapes from wolves; it's a thrilling bedtime story for the child, a tale that never loses its excitement. Dave, played by Tim Robbins, relishes the telling of the tale, though for him it's not a thing of fiction. He was once that little boy dashing through the woods, and the wolves were two men posing as a cop and a priest who put him in their car, threw him in a hole and molested him for days. The abduction still haunts Dave and the two friends, Sean and Jimmy, who watched him get in the car. As grown-up Jimmy (Sean Penn) asks Sean (Kevin Bacon), "What if you or I had gotten in that car instead of Dave?" the answer hardly matters, because what happened to these three as children stays with them as adults. They all died inside on that day; they just didn't know it until it was too late.
It's appropriate that the latest film from Clint Eastwood is titled Mystic River. The movie, screenwriter Brian Helgeland's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel, sheds enough tears to overflow a canal. On the surface, it plays like an episode of Law & Order written by William Shakespeare, but that's too glib a pronouncement for a deep-felt movie about rage and retribution that will stick with you like a bad dream. It's a mystery and a meditation on grief and loss -- of life, as a young girl's killer is sought, and of innocence -- but it's also a ghost story in which old memories doom grown men who thought they could escape the wolves in the woods.
Dave was assaulted physically, Jimmy and Sean psychologically. Though they all live and exist in the same working-class Boston neighborhood, their friendship was damaged beyond repair on the day Dave was taken, ostensibly for writing his name in wet cement. Jimmy went on to become a criminal, serving time in prison for robbery, during which time his first wife died. He remarried a woman named Annabeth (Laura Linney) and became a convenience store owner and a respectable citizen, which is no easy thing for the born-again brute. Sean joined the police force as a homicide investigator; his wife has left him and communicates with Sean only through phone calls during which she says nothing at all. And Dave became a phantom, husband to a devoted wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and father to a precious son (Cayden Boyd), but a nonentity who carries himself like someone afraid that at any moment he'll be taken and attacked again. He's on guard, but mostly from himself. "I can't trust my mind anymore," he tells Celeste, who stops trusting him the night he comes home covered in blood -- the very night Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emily Rossum) is found battered and mutilated in a park.
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We're supposed to think that Dave might have had something to do with Emily's murder; certainly it's the conclusion Jimmy arrives at and what Sean's partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) believes. But it's not that simple, because along the Mystic River, everyone is guilty of something. They're just average people bound in the same noose, connected by horrific tragedies that take place years apart.
Eastwood, after killing time during the last decade with highbrow Travel Channel gruel (The Bridges of Madison County, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil) and geriatric thrillers (True Crime, Blood Work), is happy to be in familiar territory -- in the cemetery, where the dead remind the living that no one gets out alive. It has been suggested that Eastwood has spent the second act of his career apologizing for the first, showing the price of violence after having spent years plugging bad guys with .44-caliber bullets and glib catchphrases. But his work, from the Leone westerns to White Hunter, Black Heart and Unforgiven to this, should be taken as whole: Never has an actor or director appeared to take so little pleasure in taking so many lives.
Mystic River is appropriately grim going and hard to take only because everyone pays the price for a past that grows more overwhelming with each passing day. Even the score, written by Eastwood and performed by Lennie Niehaus conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra, lies over the movie like a sky full of foreboding clouds weighed down with grieving raindrops.
The performances are uniformly remarkable -- Robbins and Harden are especially strong as a loving couple in the midst of a slow, inexplicable decay -- but none more so than the one given by Penn, whose character treats sorrow and rage as though they were the same blinding emotion. Jimmy wants to be a good guy who does the right thing, but he's too entrenched in bad yesterdays to escape his nature; even his best friends are goons, neighborhood enforcers who believe their vigilantism is not only just but essential. The scene in which he forces his way through dozens of cops to find his daughter's corpse is devastating -- a sustained and piercing howl that echoes all the way down Mystic River.