MYSTIC RIVER is an effective mystery thriller directed by Clint Eastwood that displays its paperback mystery novel roots near the end. The acting is very good, but the story has a few dramatic problems that eventually undermine the actors’ efforts.
The story opens with three boys playing stick hockey in Boston. One of the boys, Jimmy, tries to get the other two, Dave and Sean, interested in taking a joy ride in a car. When the other two refuse, he convinces them to write their names in a freshly poured cement sidewalk. Dave is only able to write the first two letters of his name when a policeman pulls up and berates the boys for vandalizing public property. Dave lives a few blocks away, so the policeman makes Dave get into his car, where an older man wearing a crucifix sits waiting. Four days later, Dave escapes from these pedophiles, who locked him in a basement somewhere.
Thirty years after this incident, Dave, Jimmy, and Sean have grown to go their separate ways. Although Dave has become a family man with a young son whom he treasures, he has drifted from job to job and has trouble focusing on things. Jimmy is a widowed ex-con with a rebellious 19-year-old daughter, Katie, and two other daughters from his second marriage. Sean is now a homicide detective trying to convince his wife to come back home to him.
One night, Dave comes home at 3 a.m. with blood on his hands and an apparent knife wound. He tells his wife Celeste that he thinks he killed a mugger who tried to attack him. That morning, Jimmy’s daughter Katie is found shot and beaten to death. Suspicion lands on Dave, who happened to be in the last bar that Katie and her two girlfriends visited. Katie’s two gun wounds, however, are matched up with a gun owned by Jimmy’s former crime buddy who disappeared years ago after betraying Jimmy to the cops. One of the buddy’s sons was planning to run away to Vegas with Katie the day she was found murdered.
Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, and especially Marcia Gay Harden deliver excellent performances as Jimmy, Dave, Sean, and Dave’s wife Celeste. Laurence Fishburne provides very solid support as Sean’s partner Whitey. The story in which their characters are involved, however, takes some predictable and not-so-predictable turns and twists that are too typical of the type of medium-level mystery thriller lurking around too many bookstalls in American airports. Ultimately, despite the high level of the acting, the characters and their story probably will not inspire many average moviegoers, even mystery fans, to repeated viewings of MYSTIC RIVER.
That said, the sex and violence in MYSTIC RIVER is not as lurid as a brief description of the story would suggest. Most of it is implied rather than depicted in detail. The movie does, however, have plenty of very strong foul language. Also, although one of the pedophiles who spirit Dave away wears a crucifix, there is a brief scene at the Christian confirmation of one of Jimmy’s younger daughters. The movie could have used more scenes like this with Jimmy’s family to delineate better for the audience what kind of father and husband Jimmy is.
The humanist worldview of MYSTIC RIVER appears to take the position that past traumatic events and tragic coincidences can shape people’s lives, even though people also have a responsibility as to how well they respond to such traumatic events. Jimmy, Dave, and Celeste make wrong decisions that lead to new tragedies, but even Sean, the least morally conflicted and troubled of the major characters, makes decisions that fail to prevent those tragedies. On the positive side, there is a strong sense of the evil of sin in this movie. Sin has real consequences in the story of these people’s lives. That is perhaps the most positive message viewers can take away from MYSTIC RIVER.
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SUMMARY: MYSTIC RIVER stars Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon as three childhood friends in Boston whose separate adult lives are turned upside down when one of their children is murdered. The acting is excellent but is undermined by some story problems, lots of strong foul language, and an unsatisfying humanist perspective on the effect of fate and circumstance on human beings.
(H, B, Ab, C, LLL, VV, S, N, AA, D, M) Light humanist worldview where past traumatic events shape people's lives, but story appears to contain a strong sense of the evil of sin and its consequences, with brief anti-Christian element where pedophile wears a crucifix but there are other minor references to the Roman Catholic and Christian faith of some of the characters and their environment; about 101 mostly strong obscenities, 12 strong profanities, nine light profanities, man goes to urinal, and man vomits; moderate crime violence such as man comes home with blood on hands and knife wound, corpse of murder victim with cuts and bruises on her face, fighting, stabbing, and implied gunshot to the head; implied pedophilia (nothing shown), passionate kissing, and married couple start to make out on bed but scene cuts away before anything revealing happens; upper male nudity; alcohol use and man plied with liquor until he reaches a light stupor; smoking; and, lying and criminal behavior.
GENRE: Mystery Thriller