Mainstream American cinema is so short on heavyweight statements these days that Mystic River has been widely received as a bona fide American classic - at least, as the best film Clint Eastwood has directed since Unforgiven, which arguably was just that. I wish Mystic River was nearly as good as some people claim, or that I could take it half as seriously as it takes itself. I can't think of a recent American film, except for Spike Lee's The 25th Hour, quite so top-heavy with gravitas. Mystic River is a square-built stone courthouse of a movie, in which the big moral issues are on trial.
There are two master narratives in Hollywood drama: the traditional revenge story and a more recent development, the loss-of-American-innocence story. Mystic River is something of both. It begins in the Sixties, in a Boston neighbourhood - the title is the name of an actual river - where three young boys are etching their names in wet cement. A car pulls up and two men, supposedly cops, get out and whisk one of them away. They aren't really cops, of course - one wears a crucifix ring, an ominous giveaway - and nothing will ever be the same again.
Years later, the boys are fathers themselves. Dave (Tim Robbins) is a regular guy but profoundly scarred, the proverbial dead man walking. Jimmy, the trio's natural leader from boyhood, has grown up to be Sean Penn; he's a well-respected local hood, whose world will collapse when - by an outrageous contrivance - his oldest daughter goes missing on the day of her sister's communion. And the third boy, Sean, is now the cop (Kevin Bacon) assigned to investigate the case. The multiple strands of past and present unfold in what is undeniably a considerable feat of narrative cramming; screenwriter Brian Helgeland has done a confident job of compacting what must surely have been a very involved slab of a novel by Brian Lehane.
Mystic River offers a substantial doorstep sandwich of a drama: at once an intricate whodunit and an ensemble portrait of a community. But its qualities are seriously offset by bombastic clumsiness, not least in the acting. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are surely America's most self-important, humourless leading men, and the film seems to be forever cutting from Robbins' jelly-jowled features scrunched up in anguish to Penn, head in hands, chewing his sorrow, hair a-crackle like a troubled porcupine. Why does Eastwood, himself the most magnetic of under-actors, need to indulge these histrionics - is it that once he steps behind the camera, the Great Stone Face is actually in awe of these compulsive over-expressers?
At one point Laurence Fishburne's cop remarks that Jimmy must have been in prison - it shows from the tension in his shoulders. That tension doesn't come from prison - it comes from being played by the kind of actor for whom relaxing would be considered sissy. That's why Kevin Bacon is so good here. He has just one momentary flash of rage, and it registers sharply because otherwise he sashays imperturbably through the film, mostly from behind aviator shades: now that's a performance, and the film's sustaining backbone.
It's not the only good performance: Fishburne is solid, though insultingly wasted in what's basically a sidekick role. The two other fine turns are also downplayed: Marcia Gay Harden as Dave's wife Celeste, choked and nervy, and Laura Linney, Jimmy's wife Annabeth. The cliché has it that the mark of great acting is the ability to do nothing while others talk: then watch how telling Linney makes Annabeth's near-blankness as she listens to Jimmy banging on about what a princess his first wife was. Linney and Harden finally steal the film's dramatic high ground in a brief coda, when the community's hostilities and collusions emerge eloquently, not in words but exchanged glances. This is the only moment when Mystic River really feels like a film, when Eastwood trusts to images and faces to carry the meaning.
Otherwise, the clumsiness can be excruciating. Eastwood has Celeste sit trembling in her car one rainy night, as if pathetic fallacy had suddenly become hot again; all the sombre inserts of the river are a facile way of making the story seem elementally fateful. Add the awkward expositional dialogue ("So your wife left you - what, six months ago?"), the creaking pace that might, in the doomy half-light, pass as masterly, and worst of all, Eastwood's own score, swelling with lugubrious pomp, and Mystic River often looks downright bad.
Nevertheless, the narrative agenda is very much at odds with the usual Hollywood urge to resolve - in other words, it's very Eastwood. Like the magnificent Unforgiven, this is a film about the futility of revenge, here seen as destroying the perpetrator as well as the guilty (or innocent) parties on the receiving end. Given its setting, a jubilant flag-waving parade, it's hard not to read the film's coda as a comment on America's own recent mood of vengefulness and the latest equivocal New World Order that has resulted: the last scene is sobering in its revelation of who the winners and losers finally are.
Yet overall the film's vision seems hopeless and predetermined: those who start out as losers can only go on losing, while the born ruler (even as a boy, Jimmy is identified as "the hard case") remains ruler, albeit a tragic one. Because of Penn's overbearing performance, Jimmy becomes rather more magnificent than he deserves to be: Penn is too much in love with his character as a lion among men, and the more he snarls, the more ludicrously grand Jimmy looks. This performance fatally undermines a film that's surely intended as anything but a hymn to machismo: its real tragic centre is neither Jimmy, nor Dave, but Harden's Celeste. It's Harden, Linney and Bacon who instil the grace into what could have been a complex, sensitive moral drama. Ultimately, though, solemnity rides roughshod over subtlety, making Mystic River muddy and sluggish indeed.