How do you like your movie violence?
Three current box-office titans raise the question: How do you like your movie violence? As schlocky entertainment (the shamelessly gruesome Texas Chainsaw Massacre)? As cheeky art-house stylization (Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill-Vol. 1)? Or as profound moral inquiry? Leave it to Clint Eastwood to understand the Commonweal moviegoer and answer us with Mystic River, his somber study of life-and death-in Irish-Catholic Boston.
Eastwood adapted his twenty-third film as director (and one of the very few in which he does not himself appear) from Dennis Lehane’s novel of the same name, a piece of high-gloss crime fiction with serious literary ambitions. Both novel and film begin on a lazy summer day in 1976 amid the drab triple-deckers of South Boston, where three boys are messing around in their neighborhood. They’re scrawling their names in the wet cement of a fresh sidewalk repair when a car pulls up, and a pair of seedy-looking men-one flashes a badge-orders one of the boys into the car. The men are not cops, however, but sexual predators, who carry the boy off to a dark basement, where he endures four days of hell before escaping. The offense hits the neighborhood with a sense of irreparable violation. “Looks like damaged goods to me,” one cop remarks, as the boy is returned home.
Fast forward a quarter-century. The boys have grown up: Jimmy (Sean Penn), who has remade himself into a responsible father and grocery store owner following an early career as a robber; Sean (Kevin Bacon), a state police detective whose marriage is on the skids; and Dave (Tim Robbins), the molesters’ victim, now a married man and father shuffling through life with an air of profound disquiet. The three are brought back together by yet another horrific act of violence, when Jimmy’s nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie, following a night out barhopping with two girlfriends, is shot and beaten to death in the local park. Sean is assigned the case, and soon the list of suspects includes Dave, who was at the bar where Jimmy’s daughter was last seen-and who, we know, came home that night covered in blood, offering his wife a not entirely convincing story of having beaten up, and possibly killed, a man who tried to mug him.
Mystic River rests on a web of crisscrossing suspicion, accusation, and revenge. The gun that killed Jimmy’s daughter, for instance, turns out to have a history-its owner was Ray Harris, father of Katie’s boyfriend, who used it in a crime twenty years ago, when he was running with a gang headed by...Jimmy Markham. But we never feel we’re being pushed for mere exercise through the maze of plot; each twist reveals character and opens up another thematic level; specific questions of guilt and innocence invoke larger ones. “God said you owed another marker, and he came to collect,” muses Sean, dreadfully rehearsing what to say to Jimmy after the discovery of his daughter’s body. At every turn Mystic River uncovers debts that must be paid. The film is grounded in powerful themes: class warfare; the tribal and territorial underpinnings of ethnic urban life; and, above all, the nature of male violence.
These obsessions provide a showcase for some superb acting. Robbins affects a shambling, muted bewilderment, but his face becomes a mask of torment as the memory of his victimization washes over him, along with an intimation of his own capacity to do harm: “I can’t trust my mind any more,” he tells his rattled wife. Penn, his shopkeeper’s half-lens glasses sitting awkwardly on his face, plays a man coiled in barely restrained violence. We follow him through the sad business of mortality-draping a blue dress over his daughter’s body at the undertakers, composing a death notice, choosing a gravestone-as grief and a gathering rage contend within him. Again and again Eastwood returns his camera to Penn’s face as he battles mightily against weeping; we see him caged in grief but also in a dark way liberated, positioned for a possible reconciliation with his own capacity for murderous vengeance. Bit by bit events disclose what Jimmy has atoned for in his past, and hint ominously at what he may have to atone for again.
It’s tantalizing, at another level, to see the film as Eastwood’s own act of atonement. Eastwood made his fame as an avatar of violence, the angel of death and vengeance in such Westerns as High Plains Drifter and Hang ‘Em High. In the 1970s, the Dirty Harry movies brought his mythic Man-with-No-Name gunslinger to the streets of the city, fashioning a cinematic prop for neoconservatism in its vision of an urban world corrupted by liberal permissiveness-by too much talk-and requiring a strong silent man wielding lethal righteousness to clean it up. The invitation was at some level an ugly one, offering a kind of relief that was anything but cathartic. It was the relief of having someone beat up, on your behalf, the punks and thugs who have been scaring you: the exultation of the coward hiding behind his bullying angel.
That was then, this is now. Late in his career, Eastwood seems to be thinking, as presidents do, of how history will remember him. Mystic River continues his project of complicating the idea of violence with which he is associated. The project goes back at least to Unforgiven (1992), where dishing out lethal vengeance occasioned not exultation but degradation and shame. Even the director’s minor entertainments of late, such as True Crime and Blood Work, concern themselves with the recipients of violence and with their suffering. Far from romancing the silence of the avenger, Mystic River is haunted by the silence of the victim: the letters in that stone square of sidewalk, where Dave’s name remains an unfinished DA—, his identity forever interrupted, his innocent boyhood quashed; Sean’s estranged wife, who calls repeatedly but never talks; the mute brother of Brendan, Katie’s secret suitor; the last, wordless glance from his daughter that Jimmy keeps coming back to; and, of course, the silence of the dead. It is deeply satisfying to contemplate the turn Eastwood’s perspective has taken; it conveys something like the wisdom of age.
Is Mystic River a great film? There’s a straightforwardness, a prosaic quality, to Eastwood’s storytelling. Aside from a few moments of moody chiaroscuro during Dave’s dark ramblings-and an operatic moment in which the camera rises above Penn, restrained by a bevy of cops and howling in anguish at his daughter’s body-the film is curiously unatmospheric. Preoccupied with police procedural, the movie gets the job done, but it doesn’t, well, blow you away.
The end of the film contains a big mistake, with Jimmy exchanging his shopkeeper’s garb for black leather, and Laura Linney, who as Jimmy’s wife has been given short shrift, bursting forth in an unconvincing explosion of Lady Macbeth-like nihilism. “A king does whatever he has to do,” she tells her husband. “Everyone is weak, Jimmy. Everyone but us.” Is Jimmy just a punk after all? Mystic River approaches the gravity of tragedy, then shrugs its shoulders, collapsing Jimmy’s torment into mere swagger. It left me thinking that while Eastwood made the movie good, Scorsese might have made it great.