Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which opened this year’s New York Film Festival on a somber but resonant note, is perhaps the finest western ever to be set in South Boston. Huddled clapboard houses substitute for the raw-plank architecture of the frontier town; an industrial bridge provides background sublimity in the absence of mountains. As always in an Eastwood western, the action takes place in an enclosed community that prefers to operate by its own rules; and as always, terrible secrets haunt the characters. Terrible wrongs are avenged and redoubled.
Of course, some viewers prefer to classify Mystic River with Eastwood’s police movies; and they’re not entirely wrong. In the role of Sean Devine, a detective with the Massachusetts state troopers, lean and clean-featured Kevin Bacon closely approximates one of Eastwood’s own tight-lipped cops, never raising his voice, continually struggling to hold himself in. But the Eastwood detective usually pursues some taunting, demonic version of himself. Devine must contend with a pair of contrasting alter egos, both of them figures from his childhood on these streets: Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), the big man in his little neighborhood, and Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who shuffles meekly around the bars and back porches and sometimes thinks he’s one of the Undead.
He is, at a minimum, unfinished. That much is obvious from a square of sidewalk into which Dave and his buddies scratched their names some thirty years ago: Jimmy, Sean, Da. Now the memory of the event that interrupted Dave’s hand is literally set in concrete, right on the street: the visible sign of something lost in him, something irremediably broken in the neighborhood.
What might turn that lingering pain into a present danger? A saloon, a six-shooter, a code of manliness.
Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River tells about guilt and suspicion in a working-class neighborhood–about young people abused and murdered, about generation after generation raging for revenge. Clearly, this story moved Eastwood to a seriousness he hasn’t practiced since Unforgiven and A Perfect World. In the less ambitious projects that have piled up in recent years, the unfussiness that is one of his chief virtues as a director has sometimes turned into his biggest flaw; you wondered, during certain scenes of Space Cowboys or Blood Work, whether you were seeing the movie or the dailies. In Mystic River, though, Eastwood’s clarity and strength are apparent from the start, even in the casting of the briefest roles. It’s enough, in the devastating prologue, to see three boys playing hockey in the street to know which will grow up to be Sean Penn and which is doomed to become Tim Robbins. When the grown-ups take the screen, their sureness matches the director’s. The performances seem to enter their bodies straight up from the pavement.
Robbins is the one who deploys his technique most openly: pushing a Boston accent against his hard palate and up into the nose, inventing a complete body language of shrugs and hesitations. A slight studiousness hangs about the performance; and yet he’s also the actor who becomes the most daring and spontaneous. Dave is falling apart; and Robbins really lets the pieces crash. You see the effect not so much when he gets to scream–anyone can flail about–as in the quieter scenes, as when he tells his son a bedtime story that runs out of control. Dave’s words, which are disturbing in themselves, become all the spookier for Robbins’s way of listening to himself, as if he, too, were puzzled by what’s coming out. Eastwood completes the mystery for him, shooting him against a background of infinite darkness, with only the left half of his face visible in a window’s pale light.