Bred in the Bone

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 8, 2003

The wages of manhood are at the quiet, seething core of "Mystic River," Clint Eastwood's somber, often elegiac hymn to ritual violence, tight-lipped stoicism and territorial pride.

Over the course of his 30-year directing career, not to mention in his most iconic roles as an actor, Eastwood has made something of a study of what it means to be a man at any particular point in American cultural history. From the victim of the sexual revolution in "Play Misty for Me" to the superannuated gunfighters and obsolete values of "Unforgiven," his movies always seem to be about Men with a capital M. With "Mystic River," Eastwood considers, not for the first time, the cardinal values of loyalty and guilt and shame and strength as they play out against the male tribal culture of violence and emotional repression; the results are explosive, heartbreaking, tragic on a Shakespearean scale. If "Mystic River" is just a bit overplayed, a tad too highly pitched, it still resonates with grief and fury and feeling.

Named for a neighborhood in Boston, "Mystic River" opens there as three 11-year-old boys are playing street hockey. Bored, restless, they begin to carve their names in some wet cement on the sidewalk; the third boy, Dave, doesn't get a chance to finish his, which will prove to be prophetic. They are interrupted by two men, a cop and a priest by the looks of them, who put the fear of God in the boys for defacing public property. Dave is shuttled into the men's car and driven away, and he will stay missing for four days, enduring unspeakable violence and abuse, until he escapes.

A few decades later, Jimmy (Sean Penn), Sean (Kevin Bacon) and Dave (Tim Robbins) don't see much of each other, although they still live in the same neighborhood. When Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found dead in a nearby park, Sean, now a state police officer, is put on the case, which will reunite him with his two old friends. As he investigates the crime, he must not only tease out whether Dave is a possible witness or even a suspect, but also manage Jimmy's grief, which threatens to spill over into uncontrolled anger (made more problematic by Jimmy's ties to local crime gangs).

"Mystic River" is essentially a by-the-numbers police procedural (it's based on the Dennis Lehane novel of the same name), but in Eastwood's hands it becomes at once a spiritual allegory and psychological indictment. There is a recurrent theme of silence in the film -- his male characters are incapable of explaining or expressing their feelings, and their wives, brilliantly played by Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney, aren't much better. (Sean's wife is seen only when she calls him on the phone and proceeds to give him the silent treatment.) When they do speak, his characters almost always say something about feeling alone.

Filmed on location in the crowded blue-collar streets of Boston, "Mystic River" often has the sere loneliness of the most isolated stretches in "Unforgiven." A pact seems to have been made on these blue, rain-slicked streets, behind the facades of the stately but slightly shabby frame houses, a wordless pact of denial, distance and emotional isolation.

"He's in for a world of hurt," an observer says when Jimmy's daughter's body is discovered. It's a world that Penn inhabits totally and without abandon in a performance that is understandably one of the most talked about of the season. Penn almost never puts a foot wrong whatever he does, and his portrayal of the volcanic Jimmy is no exception; Eastwood films him iconically, in stylized set pieces of male rage.

It's a moving, electrifying turn from Penn, but he is ably matched by his co-stars, both male and female. Robbins's portrayal of a man haunted by childhood sexual abuse might be the most accomplished of his career; his entire face seems to change as the lumpish, inexpressive Dave, displaying jowls and heft that have never been there before. Similarly Bacon, as the audience's guide through the tight-knit tribal backwaters of Irish Boston, toes the delicate line his character must walk between being of his roots and apart from them. His moral decision, when it comes, will be clear neither to him nor his friends -- or, necessarily, to filmgoers.

For its preoccupations with men and their most mythic weaknesses, "Mystic River" winds up being controlled by its women, who may seem to let their mates take center stage in the narrative but who turn out to have been quietly driving the story's tragedy all along. Viewers who might have seen Harden as just the shrewish mother-to-be in John Sayles's "Casa de los Babys" won't recognize her as Dave's mousy, terrified wife; Linney, as Jimmy's wife, Annabeth, seems to come out of nowhere at the end to deliver a speech worthy of Lady Macbeth. But look closely at her performance throughout the movie, and you see glimpses of a will far more steely -- and frightening -- than her supportive role might suggest.

In addition to eliciting outstanding performances from his cast, Eastwood has assembled a characteristically classy production team behind the camera, including screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential") and cinematographer Tom Stern, who has lit "Mystic River's" street corners, dives and waterfront streets in evocatively damp shades of blue and gray. Indeed, Eastwood's only real misstep -- and a rare one, for him -- is with his own musical score, a series of mournful, heavily orchestrated pieces whose weightiness and sacramental overtones are completely gratuitous in view of the overwhelming emotion on screen. If "Mystic River's" somber, morally ambiguous portrait of manhood has anything in spades, it's gravitas.

Mystic River (137 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for language and violence.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company