It’s odd to call a film that earned six Oscar nominations and grossed just shy of $100 million at the box office “overlooked,” but it’s not entirely inaccurate when it comes to Mystic River. “Forgotten” isn’t quite right, either. The reality is that Mystic River inexplicably gets lost in the shuffle when cineastes contemplate great movies in general and the best films directed by Clint Eastwood. Released in 2003, Mystic River breathes vivid life into the characters that populated Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name. Eastwood examines such themes as friendship, family, revenge, violence, mistaken identity, vigilante justice, and forgiveness, packing it all into an engrossing 2-hour and 18-minute mystery drama. Mystic River is currently streaming on Netflix, but leaving on January 31, so now is the time to watch it again or see it for the first time.
The story opens in Boston, 1975, with the lives of three pre-teens – Jimmy, Sean, and Dave — forever haunted when two men kidnap Dave and rape him (off-screen) over the course of several days. Cut to 25 years later. Jimmy (Sean Penn), Sean (Kevin Bacon), and Dave (Tim Robbins) are all still in Boston but have grown apart. Some major Shakespearean tragedy then occurs, starting with the murder of Jimmy’s oldest daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum). Around that same time, Dave arrives home late, covered in blood. Everyone – including Dave’s wife (Marcia Gay Harden), grieving father Jimmy, and homicide detective Sean – thinks Dave killed Katie. And the dominoes fall from there.
Eastwood directs Mystic River with a sure hand, though it’s unique among his films. Much of the action takes place at night, and darkness envelops those gorgeously lensed shots. When something is clearly visible in such moments, it’s someone’s eyes, a mouth, or a weapon. And even in scenes that occur in daylight, Eastwood’s camera closes in tight for close-ups of his cast’s faces and lingers. Also, though part and parcel of Lehane’s novel, the characters frequently speak in lengthy monologues. Fortunately, the actors are riveting. Penn and Robbins deservedly won Oscars, Harden earned a nomination, and the rest of the cast is excellent, including Laura Linney (as Jimmy’s wife, whose final scene is sublime). Eastwood clearly saw something in Rossum, who was just 17 at the time. And speaking of teens, Tom Guiry, who played Smalls in the family classic, The Sandlot, kills it in his role as Katie’s secret boyfriend, Brendan, while Spencer Treat Clark, who was 13 when he portrayed Bruce Willis’s hero-worshipping son in Unbreakable, plays a pivotal role as Brendan’s deaf-mute brother, “Silent” Ray.
Dipping in the waters of Mystic River won’t be for everyone. It’s definitely too mature for kids, and some adults might find it unrelentingly bleak. But it’s a potent, thought-provoking movie with masterful performances, evocative cinematography, and a strong score (by Eastwood). For our money, it’s Eastwood’s second-best film as a director, after only Unforgiven.
Mystic River is streaming on Netflix until January 31.