Wednesday, October 8, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

Pain, rage consume 'Mystic's' lost souls

Seattle Times movie critic

In Clint Eastwood's fine, moody thriller "Mystic River," Tim Robbins plays a ghost masquerading as a man. We learn in a prologue that his character, a regular guy named Dave, was lured into a kidnapper's car as a child while his two buddies helplessly looked on. Dave escaped after several days, but what happened to him during that dark interval is written indelibly on his adult face. The light catches his eyes, making them hollow and glassy, and he speaks in whispers and mumbles, a grown-up child afraid of what might be lurking in the shadows.

Dave's antithesis is Jimmy (Sean Penn), a former hood so sharp his face looks carved from ice. Though the two drifted apart after Dave's kidnapping, they remain in the same blue-collar Boston neighborhood, and decades later their fates intertwine again. Jimmy's teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is found murdered, on the same evening that Dave comes home with blood on his hands. The third member of their childhood trio, Sean (Kevin Bacon), is the cop assigned to investigate Katie's death, and the three soon close into a tight triangle, eyeing each other like cats in a dark alley, knowing a fight could erupt at any time.

Movie review

"Mystic River," with Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney. Directed by Clint Eastwood, from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. 140 minutes. Rated R for language and violence. Pacific Place (expanding to additional theaters Oct. 15).

< Essentially, "Mystic River" is about ghosts; about how three men continue to be haunted by those three boys they once were, frozen in a moment of time at which everything changed. "Sometimes I think all three of us got into that car," muses Sean; it barely needs to be said, as that childhood day is the unspoken bond between the men. And, like Eastwood's great "Unforgiven," it's about violence and vengeance, and the moral consequences thereof. Jimmy vows to avenge his daughter, aided by his Lady Macbeth-like wife (Laura Linney, focused and terrifying in a late scene), but this story isn't quite as black-and-white as it seems.

Dennis Lehane's novel is an elegantly written crime thriller that fairly buzzes with detail, and Brian Helgeland, as he did with James Ellroy's "L.A. Confidential," has pared it down into a taut screenplay, full of room for actors to fill in the blanks. And Eastwood, directing his 24th film, marshals a dream cast with the confidence of a symphony conductor who knows he's got all virtuosos in his orchestra. (Speaking of which, Eastwood also composed this movie's majestic score, played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)

Penn, Bacon and Robbins are all electric, and each is given an equally strong partner to play off. Penn and Linney, a tough-as-nails couple united in grief, radiate icy anger; you tense up when they're on the screen. Marcia Gay Harden, as Dave's troubled wife, Celeste, is a perfect physical match for Robbins; both have made their faces soft and almost unformed, both have frightened, childlike eyes. Laurence Fishburne, as Bacon's cop partner, brings a welcome breeziness. Even the tiny roles seem perfectly cast: Jason Kelly, playing Jimmy as a child, has Penn's lawless, cold-eyed quality down pat. (Only Rossum, playing a character who seems too idealized, strikes a slightly false note.)

"Mystic River" is full of details that stay with you: the almost painful vulnerability of a small boy (Dave's son) with a huge backpack; the rasping vowels of working-class Bostonians; the way Bacon brushes back the dead girl's hair ever so gently; the shadows on Robbins' face at night, forming lines and creases like a roadmap to his threadbare life. At the very end of the film, all assemble to watch a neighborhood street parade, and the various characters exchange looks; each capturing a world of meaning. The movie has ended, but the story continues; you wish you could stay with them a little longer.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company


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