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Mystic River is a solid crime drama from director Clint Eastwood. Like his recent Blood Work, Mystic River is based on a mystery novel and adapted by Oscar-winner Brian Helgeland. Like many of Eastwood’s films, Mystic River is refreshingly adult. That’s not to say college kids can’t enjoy it, only that Eastwood doesn’t pander to a younger crowd in search of larger audiences.

Damaged Goods

Act your age: Penn leads a very adult drama
Act your age: Penn leads a very adult drama

Mystic River follows three friends who grew up together in Boston. Eastwood opens on a scene of the three kids writing their names in cement. Two men pull up in what appears to be an unmarked police car and tell Dave to ride with them down to the station. But the men aren’t cops, and two days later, when the real police finally bring Dave home, one of the neighbors remarks, “Looks like damaged goods.”

Ever since the incident, Dave hasn’t been the same. He walks slow, talks slow, and sometimes takes a few seconds to get his mind right.

The three friends grow apart, as childhood friends do. Now adults, and all leading their own lives, the three reunite over a tragedy. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the cop called to investigate the murder of the daughter of Jimmy (Sean Penn); Dave (Tim Robbins) is an undiscovered prime suspect, known only to his wife and the audience.

When they reunite, there is an undercurrent of habitual respect, but there is also coldness and formality. After all, they were friends, not brothers. Plus, their unique roles in the tragedy keep them from fully embracing each other. Even Jimmy holds back from Sean because he doesn’t trust the cops to investigate quickly enough or thoroughly enough.

In addition to the mystery of whodunnit is the mystery of what happened to Dave when they were little. We know basically what happened, but Sean and Jimmy both wonder what happened to Dave during those two days, and how their lives might have been different had they been the one to get in that car instead.

Cop Drama

The plot is standard police fare. One clue leads to another, each one justifying a new scene. The scenes, instead of revealing only more leads, reveal the rich backgrounds behind the three lead characters and their friendships.

By the time we feel like we know the characters pretty well, the plot has been established enough to take over the movie’s momentum. By then, we care a lot about the characters and their families. We care what the outcome is, not just to satisfy our own curiosity, but because we care how it will affect the characters.

Helgeland works plenty of texture into the script. He includes frayed edges that don’t get too neatly tied up. I found myself thinking about the connection between Sean’s estranged wife, who calls but never speaks, and the mute brother of Katie’s boyfriend. I found myself reacting to the morally ambiguous ending as though I lived in Boston with the three friends.

Of course the main plot thread has a resolution, but it is these fringes that are left out of place that make you think that the characters in the film will continue to live on after the movie, because they still have too much to work out.

Power of Patience

Mystic River is unlikely to wow audiences. It isn’t flashy or loud. None of the three leads is played up as a hunk. If anything, Eastwood emphasizes their advancing age.

Instead it’s an innocuous-looking mystery whose power lies in its patience. It sneaks up on you with its characters and its pacing, and by the end you’ve been helplessly sucked in. When it ends, you know that it doesn’t really end. Talk about getting your money’s worth.