Mystic River

It all comes down to the wolves and the vampires. I’d throw in the titular Mystic River, but that’s actually the name of the river that runs by the Boston neighbourhood where events unfold. But that other “mystic” stuff that litters the film, seriously, what the hell? I guess this comes straight from Dennis Lehane’s novel, but I don’t get why no one had the good sense of dropping this stuff when making the page-to-screen transition. It’s pretty much dogma, writerly flourishes might work on paper but they often turn out to be a distraction or even ridiculous when spoken aloud. It’s okay if characters in a book talk like characters in a book: they ARE in a book! But when movie characters wax poetic about their inner turmoil and return repeatedly to an elaborate metaphor about wolves and vampires… Not so okay.

It starts like a Stephen King novel (or like the movie “Sleepers”): a working-class New England neighbourhood, three best-friends-forever enjoying happy childhood, then something terrible happens and Nothing Is Ever the Same Again. Flash-forward 25 years and their beautiful friendship is long gone, but cruel twists of fate are about to reunite them. Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con who now owns a grocery store, finds his peachy existence shattered when one of his daughters is found in a ditch, beaten and shot dead. Enters Sean (Kevin Bacon), one of Jimmy’s childhood friends who happens to be the cop assigned to the case. As if this wasn’t enough (mystic?) coincidence, their other former buddy Dave (Tim Robbins) is also involved in this sordid affair… as the prime suspect.

“Mystic River” was directed by Clint Eastwood, and as such this is a deliberately paced, character-driven piece that’s technically masterful without calling attention to it. There’s a lived-in feel to the Boston locations and a hushed down quality to every shot, all soft greens and blues and grays and whites. The score tends to swell too much and, similarly, the actors overdo it at times, but restraint is generally the main directive. Now if only this was true of the screenplay…

There is a solid story here, but it’s weakened by heavy-handed dialogue, strained symbolism and subplots that don’t go anywhere. What’s worse is that meanwhile the lead characters aren’t as developed as they could have been and consequently we’re not particularly invested in what they’re going through. The movie is never boring per se, and it does explore some morally ambiguous material that’s interesting, but it meanders and reaches for Meaningfulness for a long time with no discernible payoff. When the climax comes at last, though, it’s actually riveting, if a bit contrived – one person says something different or one thing occurs earlier or later and it wouldn’t come to this. Still, it works, almost enough to make up for the bloated second act.

But THEN, the film goes more flat than ever with 3 or 4 unnecessary scenes hammering the same points over and over again. You just want to yell to the screen, “Enough! We get it, Clint!”, especially when Laura Linney’s character, little more than an extra until then, goes into this ridiculously long and overwrought speech that tries to make this little Boston melodrama into “Macbeth” or something. Ultimately, this is where the levee breaks. “Mystic River” could have been something memorable, maybe not great but good enough, if only it had kept things simple. Not every film has to reach transcendence or whatnot, not every story is a Shakespearean tragedy. Sometimes, people are just troubled, doesn’t make them metaphorical wolves or vampires.