After three eleven year-olds from a close-knit lower middle class Boston suburb undergo a tragic experience where one is abducted and abused for four days, their lives diverge. The abducted one never overcomes the emotional trauma, another begins a life of crime, and the third becomes a cop. None ever venture very far from the neighborhood. When tragedy strikes again, their lives are gradually brought back together on a collision course that leads to some unexpected results.
Mystic River is a surprisingly dark film, with a controversial denouement. It is masterfully directed, acted, shot, edited, lit and scored. It is a mostly humorless and occasionally difficult realist drama, that will undoubtedly affect most viewers emotionally in a variety of ways–you may cry, you may become angry with at least one character and the lack of just deserts, and you may find it a bit depressing, although producer/director/composer Clint Eastwood and scripter Brian Helgeland do through in a relatively minor glimmer of hope/happiness at the very end.
Not that I tend to agree with awards organizations, but it should be no surprise that Mystic River has fine acting. A bulk of its many awards and nominations, including two Oscar victories, were for on screen performances. What is less recognized is the positive effect that the locations, cinematography, lighting and score have on the atmosphere of the film. Kokayi Ampah found the perfect, generic, metropolitan lower middle class neighborhoods, buildings and bars. It could be any slightly depressing, but maybe about to gentrify, suburb of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit, or any number of at least Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. cities. Tom Stern’s cinematography is continually, subtly inventive. Just check out the shot of Sean Penn where shadows from a railing form symbolic jail bars on the wall behind him. The lighting tends to the late 1990s/early 2000s look that is more monochromatic and leaning-towards blue. There are a lot of well-placed shadows, often creating a chiaroscuro look. Eastwood’s score is understated but very effective. And how can you not like a film where three sexy girls dance on top of a bar to jazz fusion?
The story is absorbing. There is an unexpected (to me, at least–I try to watch films the first time knowing as little about them as possible) mystery angle that is effectively sustained until almost the end. I haven’t read Dennis Lehane’s novel yet, but I just ordered it after seeing the film–the film piqued my interest enough to want to explore more. But the most interesting part of the story to me, at least, was the extremely gray depiction of Penn’s character, Jimmy Markum. Markum is revealed to be largely criminal, and not quite likable in his attitude towards his daughter (he doesn’t respect her individuality, even though she’s actually an adult). Yet at the same time, he is compared by at least one character to a “king”, and in many ways, he is treated as one in the neighborhood. This may or may not be meant more metaphorically by the character saying it, but it is possible to read much of the film as being about a traditional king trying to live in modern day metropolitan suburbia. In some historical and cultural contexts, surely Markum’s behavior in the film would have a more noble sheen, including his “mistake”. This is perhaps why poetic justice never arrives, and instead, the character is seen as contented, with his queen and court by his side, being regaled with a parade instead. In modern contexts, many kings’ behavior would not be so noble, and instead we’d notice more the injustices done to the peasantry and sympathize with them. Markum’s character cannot be depicted more literally as royalty, as if he were far removed from the socio-economic status of the film’s peasantry (although we find out eventually that he has more money to spare than most folks in his neighborhood), because it would be instead read as a moral tale of economic disparity as is exists solely in modern times. Putting everyone on a level playing field, more or less, is the only way to create a parable of how kings would be perceived, solely in terms of their decisions and actions, in our era.
Of course, there is more to the film than that, and it’s not the only interpretation possible (in fact, it probably seems very left field to many readers), but it’s worth pointing out not only as something literally interesting to contemplate, but to show the kind of storytelling depth that is contained in Mystic River–a film you should not miss.