Every now and then a movie's acting transcends its plot or characters. Such is the case not once but twice with Sean Penn in 2003, with "Mystic River." The film hasn't the most convincing story line, but it features an outstandingly convincing performance by one of Hollywood's premier actors. Indeed, Penn so convinced the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences of his abilities, they honored him in "Mystic River" with an Oscar for Best Actor of the year.
What's more, "Mystic River" won an Oscar for costar Tim Robbins as well, for Best Supporting Actor, a performance that the Academy could well have nominated for a Best Actor award if it weren't for the "All About Eve" concern, where in 1950 Anne Baxter and Bette Davis cancelled each other out for the same movie. Now, if only director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland could have done a little more with Dennis Lehane's crime novel and its attendant complications, "Mystic River" might have been a little less predictable. As it is, the plot is somewhat formulaic and unfolds pretty much as one would expect, with few surprises beyond the formidable acting of its stars.
But the acting is plenty good enough. And the new Blu-ray high-definition picture and sound don't hurt.
The movie works best as a psychological study of the effects of early childhood experiences on the adult psyche, but even here the details are vague. We learn in flashback that a pair of creeps posing as police officers abducted a boy, Dave Boyle (Robbins), one of three boyhood chums, forced him into their car, and sexually molested him. The event affects each of the three boys, Dave, Jimmy Markum (Penn), and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), differently, but the film leaves it to the audience to figure out just how.
Dave, now married and with a young son, forever worries about the molestation. He continues to live in the Boston neighborhood of Mystic River where he grew up and takes long walks around the streets at night, apparently searching for his lost childhood. A few years after the molestation to his friend, Jimmy Markum, the toughest hardcase of the trio, gets convicted of robbery and spends two years in prison, afterwards settling down in the same Mystic River area he grew up in, becaming a respectable family man, the father of three girls, and the owner of a small, corner grocery store. Sean Devine would appear to have adjusted best, graduating from college and becoming a police detective, but his domestic life is in tatters and his wife has left him.
A brutal tragedy in their present adult lives brings them all together again. The police find Jimmy's nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), murdered in a park, beaten and shot. Jimmy goes beserk, enlisting his own hoodlum buddies, Val and Nick Savage (Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson), to do some investigating for him on their own. Jimmy's wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), sticks resolutely by her man in his pursuit of revenge. And Devine and his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), enter the story as part of the official police investigation.
Meanwhile, Dave becomes a prime suspect both of Whitey and of Jimmy's crew because he was the last one to see Katie alive, he was out of the house the night of the murder, and he has a mysterious bruise on his hand. Even Dave's wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Hardin), comes to suspect him. Sean, however, refuses to believe that his old pal had anything to do with the crime and insists upon following up a lead on the gun used in the murder, a gun that he and Whitey trace to the mysteriously absent father of Katie's boyfriend, Brendan (Thomas Guiry), and Brendan's mute younger brother, "Silent" Ray (Spencer Treat Clark).
Dave walks. Jimmy broods. Sean denies.
I think just from this brief synopsis you can see where the story's going. As a straightforward crime drama, the film relies far too much on melodrama and coincidence to be entirely persuasive. Dave claims a mugger attacked and knifed him in a fight on the night of Katie's murder, thus accounting for his hurt hand. Furthermore, Dave's childhood molestation has left him unhinged, and he's clearly capable of doing anything. Jimmy's old friend Sean just happens to be doing the investigation, with Sean looking biased and blind to the truth. Then, all of the plot threads come together simultaneously one evening, almost at the same moment. It leaves one with the feeling that the film devises a plot all too contrived, all too easy, and all too manipulative.
Ah, but every time the events of the plot seem hopelessly lost, the performances come to the rescue. Despite the histrionics of the story, it's hard not to be captivated and moved by the power of the characters. Penn excels at exposing not only Jimmy's tough-guy disposition but his genuine anguish at the loss of his daughter, his tormented grief, and his interminable anger. We slowly come to realize as the film goes on that Jimmy, like Dave, may truly be capable of doing, and having done, almost anything.
Remarkably, Robbins matches Penn step for step, scene for scene, but in a more subtle, restrained manner. If you think Penn is over-the-top, you'll love Robbins. The Robbins character is progressively losing his mind, believing his life ended twenty-five years earlier when he stepped into the car with his abductors; and when he starts talking softly to his wife one evening about vampires and ghouls, he gets truly spooky. Both Jimmy and Dave are looking for answers to the problems in their lives, answers neither of them can find nor fathom.
The other supporting roles are no less compelling. Linney and Hardin as the wives are superb, effectually conveying a sense of devotion on the one hand and growing doubt on the other. Fishburne is the police sidekick doggedly and rather cold-bloodedly pursuing justice no matter where it leads or what people it may hurt. And it's a kick to see Eastwood's old buddy from "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," Eli Wallach, show up in an uncredited bit part as a liquor store owner.
It's the Bacon character that gets shortchanged, though. Bacon gives the part everything it deserves, but the script might have given him more to work with. Moreover, Devine's marital concerns seem merely tagged on, one story too many. Either the story should have done more with his dilemma, or it should have left it out altogether.
"Mystic River" is grimly realistic in its particulars, even if its general outline is a little too convenient to be credible. It's basically a story that poses the question, as several of the main characters ask, "What if....?" What if it had been Jimmy or Sean instead of Dave who as youths had gotten into the car with the child molesters? How might it have altered their lives and Dave's life? "Mystic River" explores the quirks of fate that make us who and what we are.
I'm happy to report that in high definition the movie looks much better than its standard-definition DVD counterpart. Using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec, WB provide an image that looks solid and vivid, with inherent print grain present but at a minimum. The transfer maintains the film's original 2.40:1 aspect ratio, with solid blacks, yet not so deep that they obscure detail. Most important, the object delineation is excellent, much better than the only average picture quality on the standard-def DVD.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack provides a reasonably strong dynamic impact when necessary, although to be fair, the film is mostly dialogue where impact doesn't matter. In addition, there is smooth overall clarity and subtle but very deep bass. The audio engineer uses the surrounds to good effect for neighborhood noises, traffic, crowds, bands, sirens, helicopter flyovers, and musical ambience reinforcement. The sound is not overwhelmingly impressive and is sometimes quite subtle, but it does it job quite effectively.
The folks at Warner Brothers carry over most of the extras from their previous three-disc DVD set to the Blu-ray, again in standard definition. Things begin with an audio commentary by Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon. Next are several features, which I didn't find as interesting as I probably should have. In the first of them, novelist Dennis Lehane tours the Boston setting of his novel in "Mystic River: Beneath the Surface," twenty-two minutes with the writer, director, and stars talking about the production. In the second featurette we get a making-of affair, "Mystic River: From Page to Screen," eleven minutes, which seemed to me a redundant prolongation of the first featurette. Anyway, together they offer an abundance of information. The longest item on the disc, however, is a series of three separate interviews from "The Charlie Rose Show" with Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon amounting to forty-one, fifty, and twenty minutes each.
The extras conclude with a teaser trailer and a regular theatrical trailer, both in SD widescreen; thirty-six scene selections; English, French, Spanish, German, Hungarian (?), and Italian spoken languages; French, Spanish, German, Italian, and a slew of other subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
When the Wife-O-Meter and I left the theater after watching "Mystic River" on the big screen, we got in the car, simultaneously turned to one another, and said, "Oscar." It's that good a picture. Maybe not as a pure crime drama, as I've said, but as a show of dramatic acting. The characters are real, their emotions convincing, their plight sympathetic. When we as an audience actually feel for the people on screen, knowing full well they're not real, when we willingly suspend our disbelief enough to suffer along with them as in this case, we know we've seen good actors in good performances. And we must credit Eastwood right along with his performers for elicting the best from them. It makes the whole enterprise worthwhile.