Director: Clint Eastwood

I think it's safe to say that we don't live in a perfect world. We live in a world full of violence, of hate, of perversion, and while some people lead blissfully unaffected lives, others are haunted by a dark cloud that hangs above them. It is a dark cloud compelling those it follows to venture deep into the blackest depths of their souls. Some can ignore it, living their lives the best that they can. Others, however, aren't as lucky. This sort of thing is the focus of Mystic River, Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's mystery novel. It's a dark, complicated tale of not only those followed by that damnable dark cloud, but also of those affected by the repercussions of the actions of others. And the fact that it was beaten by the third Lord of the Rings movie for the Best Picture Oscar is a shame, because Mystic River is a fantastic movie.

MYSTIC RIVER (2003)Our tale of tragedy opens with three young boys — Jimmy Markum (Jason Kelly), Sean Devine (Connor Paolo), and Dave Boyle (Cameron Bowen) — playing a round of street hockey in their Boston neighborhood. After the gutter swallows the last of their hockey balls, the trio is suddenly left with nothing to do. Jimmy, rogue that he is, suggests "borrowing" a car for a spin around the block. When Sean shoots that down, Jimmy's attention turns to a section of wet cement in the sidewalk. He impulsively writes his name in the cement, Sean following behind him.

But when it's Dave's turn, he only manages to get through the first two letters before they're interrupted by two strangers, one of whom appears to be a plainclothes cop. He starts getting on their case for "destroy[ing] municipal property," forcing Dave into the back of their car so he can be taken back home to his parents. When Jimmy and Sean report what happened to their fathers, they notice things don't add up and start looking for him. Four days pass, during which Dave is sexually abused by his abductors before he finally manages to escape and return home.

Twenty-five years later, the three kids who wrote their name in wet cement have become adults. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a hot-tempered ex-con hardened by both prison and the death of his first wife. He owns a corner grocery store and has a happy family with his strong-minded second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney), but the propensity for crime is still within him. This is oddly balanced by Sean (Kevin Bacon), who works for the Massachusetts State Police's homicide division. His wife left him six months ago for reasons unrevealed, but continues to call him on a daily basis, though she never says a word during any of these calls. The third member of the trio, Dave (Tim Robbins), has started his own family. He loves his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and their son Michael (Cayden Boyd), but Dave is sadly a shell of a man thanks to the deep emotional scarring left behind by the trauma of his youth.

While their lives may have taken them in separate directions, their paths converge once again when Jimmy's cherished daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is found murdered. Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are assigned the case, and they whittle the list of suspects down to two: Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), the boyfriend that Katie kept hidden from her father; and Dave, who returned home late on the night of the murder, covered in blood and claiming that he'd gotten into a violent, perhaps fatal, brawl with a mugger. But as Sean and Whitey conduct their own investigation, Jimmy is looking into it himself. With Annabeth's three roughneck brothers assisting him, he's determined to find his daughter's killer and dole out a little justice of his own.

I don't really follow the Oscar scene, mainly because the majority of the Best Picture candidates are movies that I'd never watch in a million years. In fact, by my count, I've seen less than one percent of the movies that have been nominated since the conception of the Best Picture award. But I took a shot at Mystic River, and I'm glad I did because it's a thoroughly engrossing movie from start to finish. Everything about it is fantastic, from the direction and writing, to the cast, and even the music. It isn't hard to see why Mystic River earned six Oscar nominations and five Golden Globe nominations, but I'm personally bummed that it didn't take home more awards than what it did.

But enough about Mystic River's performance during the award season, let's talk about the movie itself. That's why we're here, right? Mystic River tells a story about sadness, about love and loyalty, about how sometimes, one bad experience in the past can wholly ruin someone's present. Through the work of movie's writer, director, and cast, we are pulled deep into this story. We're drawn to follow, to see how things progress and how the characters develop. It's an engrossing movie, to say the least.

Let's begin with Brian Helgeland's screenplay. Helgeland takes a minor liberty or two with Dennis Lehane's novel, but the adaptation he has crafted is a fantastic one. The movie is more of a character study than an actual mystery, and the writer handles the characters delicately. Helgeland lets them develop, and in doing so, makes us care about them. And in caring about them, we become more invested in the journey of the characters, rather than their destination. Each of them follow their own paths on this journey, yet all of them are connected, affecting one another as they go. Their interactions and their development really show the mark of great writing, both in Lehane's novel and Helgeland's script.

Up next is the direction of cinema legend Clint Eastwood. Mystic River marks his twenty-fourth film as a director, and his talent and experience are evident here. Eastwood doesn't do anything extravagant or flashy behind the camera, nor does he need to. He and cinematographer Tom Stern team up to give the movie the gloomy, brooding atmosphere that it requires. Even the production logos at the opening of the movie echo the emotion of the movie; instead of the brightly colored animated logos that Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow Pictures usually use, we see simple, unanimated grayscale logos. The way Eastwood and Stern compose their shots, you can watch the movie with the sound turned off and still comprehend exactly what's going on. Eastwood is a masterful storyteller, and I believe that's evidenced in two scenes with the Dave character. He twice shows Dave getting into a car, both as a child and as an adult, staring out the back windshield at the street behind him. Both times, you just know that the person who got in that car is never going to come back.

And really, that is the saddest part of the whole movie. Because one tragedy had befallen Dave, his entire life from that point forward was stained. The fact that he only managed to get half his name etched into that cement is a telling metaphor for who that character is. Just as the writing of his name was interrupted, stuck in an unfinished moment, Dave is stuck in that one horrible incident that robbed him of his childhood. And as the movie progresses, and another tragedy threatens to similarly rob him of his adulthood, we see and understand that Dave will never be able to escape the horrors that have haunted him since his kidnapping. And that's through the work of Eastwood's masterful direction. His work is also greatly assisted by the moody, melancholy score that he has composed. Performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Eastwood's music is both beautiful and haunting, wonderfully supporting the movie's tragic content.

Last but most certainly not least is Mystic River's excellent cast. Everyone puts on a spectacular show, and if there is one reason for you to quit reading this review and run out to go rent this movie, it's the cast. First up is undeniably the movie's best performer, Sean Penn. Critics have hailed Penn as one of the best actors currently working in Hollywood, and his work here is evidence why. He excellently plays a man bottling up the ever-mounting rage and sadness inside him, seething to the point that the viewer almost needs him to explode just to let us have some sort of emotional release. Honestly, I do believe that this is a performance that will be included on highlight reels of Penn's career for the rest of eternity. Two scenes in particular — one in which he tries to press through a police barricade at the site of Katie's murder, woefully begging for his daughter; another shortly thereafter when cracks begin to appear in his armor during a conversation with Tim Robbins's character on his back porch — are proof enough that Penn deserved the accolades he received for this performance.

Tim Robbins also deserved the awards he garnered for his work, playing a character who, thanks to the trauma suffered as a child, has grown into an awkward, emotionally fractured adult. Dave can't help being the way he is, and Robbins understands this; he plays the role with a peculiarity that brings Dave a greater, more resonating depth. Robbins was awarded a Best Supporting Actor trophy at the Oscars, the Golden Globes, and the SAG Awards, and like Penn, I think he deserved the recognition. The third of our three primary actors, Kevin Bacon, is also great. Though his character is the least developed of the three, Bacon is our emotional middle ground. He is our chance to catch our breath, playing his character almost as an outsider looking in, almost as if he were a member of the audience. His performance is wonderful, bolstered by the entertaining work of Laurence Fishburne as his character's partner.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic. I've already mentioned that I enjoyed Fishburne, and I have to say that I found everyone else worth watching as well. Laura Linney and Tom Guiry are both solid, and although her screen time is limited to just one scene (thanks to her character being to Mystic River what Laura Palmer was to Twin Peaks), Emmy Rossum is likeable in her role. The best member of the supporting cast, however, is Marcia Gay Harden, whose performance is exemplary. She plays the complete opposite of Linney's character, someone who's been completely pushed away emotionally from her husband, which causes her to doubt both him and their relationship. Harden plays the role as a fragile, worried woman that hopes for the best, but slowly begins to believe that "the best" might just be a pipe dream. Her performance is almost as good as those from Penn, Robbins, and Bacon, for sure.

I know I've spent pretty much the entirety of this review unabashedly singing the praises of Mystic River, but it really is a fantastic movie. Though the final six or seven minutes — the epilogue at the parade, specifically — probably could been excised in order to end things on a note more befitting the overall tone of the film, Mystic River seems nearly flawless in its execution. There aren't a whole lot of movies that can be said about, but this is certainly one of them. If you can watch the movie and not at least appreciate its efforts on some level, then you're out of your mind. It boasts a combination of both an amazing cast and an amazing crew, and due to this, I can give Mystic River nothing lower than the full five stars and a hearty seal of approval. So drop what you're doing, run to the local Blockbuster Video, and rent a copy of Mystic River right now.

Final Rating: *****