film review: MYSTIC RIVER *** 1/2

There are few directors left in Hollywood who can make high quality films within the stifling parameters of the “mainstream.”

Back in the ’70s, guys like Spielberg, Scorsese, and Coppola were making pictures that were not only amazing from a critical standpoint, but were well received and popular across the board.

And while it’s not uncommon to look back upon a certain golden age in media with overly romanticized awe, especially if you didn’t live to experience it, the glory days of visionary mainstream cinema have passed us and been replaced by bottom-line commodity.

Today’s is a more segregated system, where a significant number of films with cultural significance and artistic progression go unseen by the vast majority. Those who have made the terrible mistake of not residing in Manhattan or Los Angeles are often left on the weekend watching earth-shattering melodramas about talking dogs and former wrestlers.

Enter Clint Eastwood, one of the last American filmmakers who possesses the old school sensibility, whose movies still open in thousands of multiplexes and garner talk show banter. His newest effort, the bold mystery/thriller Mystic River, embodies everything ideal that’s still capable of the billion-dollar Hollywood studios.

With Mystic River, Eastwood has created a film for adults, a film that needs to be – brace yourself – discussed intelligently, maybe even without mentioning car chases or the benefits of gratuitous nudity. This is a smart film, and thus it’s meant for a mature – but not boring – audience, one less interested in resting in the dark for two hours than it is in untangling a topnotch nail biting drama.

The plot has enough material for ten films, a dark medley that boils down to a mixture of character study and intense murder mystery. The opening scene is a flashback to what appears to be a ’70s suburb in Boston. Three 12-year-old boys are playing hockey in the street, when a man who pretends to be an intimidating police officer abducts one of them right in front of their eyes. A shot of the kidnapped child, Dave, helplessly peering out the back window of a car as it cruises down the empty street is easily one of the most memorable and haunting cinematic images in recent memory.

About thirty years later, the three boys are adults still living in the suburbs, but their lives have changed drastically. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a straight-laced local detective caught up in a bizarre marriage. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who served two years in prison before cleaning up, and now manages a small convenience store to support his family. The young victim of the kidnapping, Dave (Tim Robbins), who soon after escaped, remains scarred emotionally, his adult years reduced to a jittery, mumbling mess. Alongside his weary wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and son, Dave suffers from a mountain of tormenting nightmares.

Youth is destroyed again when Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter is murdered. Obviously distraught by the loss, Jimmy refuses to (Laura Linney) put faith in the local cops, instead choosing to contact former partners-in-crime to bully people in search of answers.

Being the small town that it is, Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) are heading the investigation, but Dave’s abduction has long ended the trio’s close friendship. When we see Sean, Dave and Jimmy as adults, the story immediately becomes captivating – and yet there’s so much more on the horizon

One of many suspects, Dave returned home on the night of the murder drenched in blood and babbling a weak cover story to the point of scaring his wife and causing her to leave the house – but did he do it?

A huge hit at Cannes this summer, Mystic River will surely find strong critical attention upon its wide release. The edgy, sharp script by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) was adapted from a novel by Dennis Lehane, and is brought to the screen by Eastwood with an unmatched fervor never before seen in his career as a filmmaker.

Nothing is held back, and Eastwood’s gutsy confidence in sticking to his guns are complimented by several performances that are arguably classic, namely Penn as the gangster turned family man and Robbins, who dives deep into this signature study of quiet brilliance.

Unfortunately, the ending, while technically sound and emotionally powerful, lacks the morals and redemptive heart needed to reach the un-crowded echelon of dramatic perfection. Other minor flaws included dips into over acting and a handful of loosely constructed, long-winded segments, but the film’s too much of a success to be passed up.

Mystic River is startling and complex in all the right ways, and every member of the all-star cast keeps the film moving briskly forward (yes, even Bacon). At the very least, it’s going to leave a lasting impression on audiences, and it will certainly make people think. Hopefully, there’s still a mainstream audience up to the challenge.

Shawn Wines can be reached at