Mystic River, the 24th film directed by (though not starring) Eastwood, seems at first to have been made expressly to impress the pundits. Where his most recent directorial efforts (True Crime, Space Cowboys, Blood Work) have a meditative, laid-back autumnal mellowness, Mystic River is somber and solemn, filled with stormy nights and human darkness. Adapted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) from Dennis Lehane's novel, it follows a circle of pain in a working-class, secluded Irish-Catholic Boston neighborhood, where the past is never far from the present. Three childhood friends have gone their separate ways since the fateful day when one of them was abducted by two pedophiles masquerading as detectives, later returned but branded forever as "damaged goods."
Now adults, ex-con Jimmy (Sean Penn) hides his shady connections behind the counter of his convenience store, Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a taciturn detective with a slumming marriage, while Dave (Tim Robbins), the molested kid, is a shambling father and husband, muddling feebly through life. One night, he comes home soaked in blood, babbling to his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). The following morning, the battered corpse of Jimmy's teen daughter turns up. Sean is called in to investigate and Jimmy swears to take the law into his own hands, while Celeste becomes increasingly, desperately sure of her husband's guilt. The demons of every character emerge ominously as the pieces of the mystery fall in place.
In its grim tone and unrelenting seriousness, the film glances back to Eastwood's Best Picture winner Unforgiven eleven years ago, when the majestic, open vistas of the Western were contrasted with the lacerating violence of the people inhabiting them. Does that make Mystic River mere Oscar bait, a prestigious "return to form" following a slew of supposedly minor works? To confuse the film's mournful intensity with the stately inertia that passes for end-of- year "quality" cinema is to fail to appreciate the paradox that has made Eastwood one of the most evocative and consistently interesting of American filmmakers -- the way a superstar and director of such supposedly conservative leanings can at the same time go deeper in prodding, questioning and subverting genre conventions than much younger, more assertive rookies.
Stylistically, Eastwood is possibly the last of the American classicists. Despite his trademark helicopter shots, his camera movements are strictly functional, following either a character or, occasionally, a concept. There is something of the Old Hollywood veteran in his use of music, in the measured sculpting of a scene, in how long a close-up should last. Also like his mentors, Eastwood pays scrupulous attention to detailed performance, no matter how peripheral the character. (Watch how much cunning, lifeworn information seeps from the mother of the murdered girl's boyfriend or the old liquor store owner, each with barely a scene.) If his technique is assuredly "old-fashioned," Eastwood's handling of the material is anything but. For somebody with a reputation for mindless screen machismo, Eastwood has, since his Dirty Harry days, been remarkably consistent in questioning those masculine impulses that supposedly make American screen heroes.
The same ideals of violence, revenge and misogyny that constitute the heroes' status of manhood are viewed by the director with self-policing rigor: by the end, once these desired aims have been accomplished, the result is not so much victory but restricting despair. (The endings of White Hunter, Black Heart and Unforgiven are superb examples of this.) The same rigor is applied to the anguished characters of Mystic River, where brutality and revenge become intermingled with ideals of morality and guilt. As various critics have pointed out, the film is crawling with doubles and broken mirror images: Jimmy's volatile fury and Dave's implosive sorrow, the tortured fears of Celeste and the icy control of Jimmy's wife (Laura Linney), and the twin car rides that seal Dave's fate. The effect is a moral vision where issues originally dealt in black-and-white terms are complicated and challenged by the continuous crisscrossing of ideals. The extraordinary final sequence, among this year's most daring, brings out the full darkness of the fate the characters have tightened around themselves, while cloaking it in the celebratory principles of a star-and-stripes parade. The Mystic River, always flowing, watches silently, impassively.
Eastwood the artist? If proof is still needed, Mystic River stands alongside Unforgiven as his masterpiece.