Polluting the River

Mystic River

Mystic River is a prime example of the danger of adapting rich novels for the screen. When screenwriters fall a little too much in love with source material, they become afraid to pare it down, and the result is often unwieldy.

What’s curious with Mystic River is that Dennis Lehane’s novel (which I have not read, although my wife has) was adapted by Brian Helgeland, who took a meat cleaver to James Ellroy’s sprawling L.A. Confidential and miraculously produced a work that captured the spirit of the book without much fidelity to the plot.

Here, though, the novel’s weighty themes and a key character development are awkward and ultimately burden the whole piece. I’m assuming that Helgeland has trimmed the narrative, but he hasn’t cut quite enough.

The director, Clint Eastwood, has proved himself a master of telling simple stories simply, particularly with Unforgiven. His oeuvre behind the camera, though, also includes messes such as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which he comes off as tone deaf and loses the battle with monstrous source material.

The story in Mystic River is meant to be a triptych, showing three childhood friends who, after losing touch with one another, are thrown together by a murder investigation. The biggest problem is that one of the panels is unfinished. The movie is ultimately about thug-turned-convenience-store-owner Jimmy (Sean Penn) and damaged Dave (Tim Robbins); homicide cop Sean (Kevin Bacon) is left standing to the side.

When they were kids, Dave was abducted by two people posing as cops and sexually abused for four days. The movie’s trouble starts with this opening, rushed by Eastwood and badly acted by the child versions of the major characters. The sequence is crucial to the plot, because it establishes what happened to Dave and lays the foundation for his later behavior, but it might have been better as a flashback sequence. The first scenes of any movie establish mood, and a stumbling start hamstrings the whole film. And as a rule, kids — unless they’re phenomenal actors well-directed — can’t carry that weight, and these boys certainly aren’t up to the task.

Flash forward to the present, and Jimmy’s daughter is murdered. Dave, who was drinking at the bar where Jimmy’s daughter was last seen alive, arrives home bloodied and slashed in the gut, and he tells his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) that he was attacked by a mugger and might have killed him. (Like Spike Lee’s Clockers, Mystic River creates artificial suspense and mystery by not showing key events, even though the camera is otherwise all-seeing. It’s a cheap, easy technique that rarely fails to irritate me.) Sean comes in to investigate the murder, at first focusing on the daughter’s boyfriend but eventually unable to ignore Dave as a suspect. Dave doesn’t help himself by changing his story every time he’s asked about his injuries.

When the movie finally kicks into gear, it’s phenomenal. Mystic River has the plot of a police procedural — not much different from any episode of Law & Order (including the twist) — but the texture of a great character drama. Jimmy and Dave are sharply drawn and wonderfully specific, and Penn and Robbins turn in performances that merit Oscar consideration. Their scenes together — from a porch reunion that is painfully awkward to their final confrontation, when Jimmy accuses Dave of murdering his daughter — are positively electric.

Bacon does well in a thankless role, but he’s the third wheel on the bicycle. Helgeland has retained a subplot involving Sean’s estranged wife that goes nowhere, and it doesn’t help that Eastwood shows only her mouth in phone conversations, the camera intruding awkwardly in a film in which it’s generally unobtrusive and natural.

Helgeland also fucks up the finale, tossing off a Godfather-like howler that shows Jimmy not only coming to terms with his sins but embracing them. (I half-expect to see Mystic River II show up at the movie theater in a couple of years, with Jimmy having his heretofore-unseen brother Fredo whacked on a boat.) It’s not that the ending couldn’t work but that it doesn’t. It comes too quickly and with too little setup, and in a movie whose core story — the murder and its investigation — is so rich and detailed, it’s not just superfluous but damaging.

And that’s what’s saddest to me. This is a script that’s one relatively painless revision away from being something special. There’s a good, perhaps even great, movie in Mystic River, but Helgeland and Eastwood didn’t find it.

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