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Mystic River ****
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Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon
Directed by Clint Eastwood

Penn pushed to the brink.

     By the end of the new Clint Eastwood directed drama Mystic River, after we've gone through all the tragedy one film can throw at us, we come to ask ourselves the same question Sean Penn and Kevin Bacon have been asking themselves: What if I got in that car?
     The car in question carried away the childhood friend of Jimmy (Penn) and Sean (Bacon), taking away Dave (Robbins) to a place from which he never returned.  The three boys had been writing their names in wet cement along the street of their Boston town, surrounded by the Mystic River.  Two men pretending to be cops order Dave to get in their car, taking him to their basement.  Dave spends four days being molested, watching his innocence escape from him.
     Dave escapes, but he never finds his innocence again.  Instead, he becomes a hollow shell of a man, only deviating from a monotone tone and straight face for moments we fear the man has lost his mind.
     Sean becomes a detective for the Boston police force, palling around with his curiously named partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne).  But, as is the case with each of the three boys who have since grown up, he's got his own problems.  His wife left him.  She manages to call for some quality awkward silences with her husband.  We can only see her lipstick coated lips letting air escape.  Then she hangs up.
     Jimmy went to prison for two years when he was eighteen.  He got out and eventually opened a corner store in his old neighborhood.  He runs the place much like he still runs the neighborhood - from behind the wizard's curtain.  That is, until his teenage daughter is murdered.  Then he peaks his head out and we begin to see him orchestrating the string section he never really left behind. 
     Dave comes home from a night out covered in blood, slashed in the stomach by somebodies knife.  We can see the terror in his eyes as he tells his wife that he may have killed a mugger.  We can feel the terror one gathers from watching a man hanging on to life by a string.  When there's no mention of a body in the newspaper, his worrying wife (Marcia Gay Harden in a carefully calculated performance) begins to wonder what really happened to her husband.
     Jimmy's daughter is found in the woods after having been shot and beaten.  In a scene of rare unbridled emotion, Jimmy is restrained by six or seven police officers when approaching the crime scene.  He questions his old friend Sean, who has arrived on scene to investigate.  Our breath stops as we hear and see Jimmy says "Is that my daughter down there?"  Sean acknowledges that it is, and then Jimmy falls apart right before our eyes.
     The next time we see Jimmy, he is still and quiet, sitting alone in the city morgue.  Sean shows Jimmy his daughter's body and we see Jimmy make decisions, or start to slowly make his way toward them.  He asks Sean when they expect to catch who did this to his daughter.  Sean doesn't know and again we see the way an anguished father's convictions will take him.
     The story is a mixture of a mystery, a gut-wrenching drama, and an American tale.  I liked what my friend said after seeing the film, pointing out that Mystic River is much like a Shakespearean tragedy: You can see the trouble coming, but you stll can't turn away.  I am inclined to agree.  It's another great American film, born and raised in the streets of Boston, muddling through grief little by little.
     For Jimmy, the grief is from the loss of his daughter, who he clearly loved very much.  She was the only one waiting for him when he got out of prison.  In a sense, they raised each other.
     Dave grieves for his childhood, for his humanity, and it's hard to watch.  Robbins so accurately captures the turmoil lying beneath his character's surface that we can almost see through him.
     Sean grieves for his crumbling marriage and for his newborn daughter of which he doesn't even know the name.
     We watch these men break down before us.  But the melodrama is played straight, saving the theatrics for the trailers before it.  This movie seems real, and becomes all the more affecting because of it.  
     The film packs an emotional punch that floored me.  I can not imagine not being moved by this movie with its expert portrayals of America gone wrong, people dealing with things God never intended for them to deal with. 
     The film resonates long after you've left the theater.  It's rare that a movie can so honestly portray violence but not alienate its audience in doing so.  You come to care about all of the characters, what happens to them, who breaks first and who can be put back together again.
     The film's three leads all deliver amazing performances.  If they cannot make the characters real to us, the film doesn't work.  But it does work, and it's the result of a director taking talent and stretching it out, making actors work through emotions and actions rather than coasting through it as some talented actors have done it the past.  Eastwood, a director who frequently deals with the effects of violence in his films, knows how to frame the drama so that it devastates us, disturbs us in the way violence should.
     Sean Penn delivers a career defining performance that forces him to run himself ragged.  We can see Jimmy struggle.  We can see the sadness worn into his face.  Penn sometimes plays out his emotions in grandstanding fashion, particularly in the scene mentioned earlier and the climax; but where these scenes could play out as fake in the wrong hands, Penn roots his performance in deep convictions coming across in every syllable.  It's a testament to the greatness of his performance that we can sympathize, even empathize so easily with Jimmy from beginning to end.  It's one of Penn's more charismatic performances. 
     Perhaps the best performance comes from Robbins, an underrated actor who has been out of the critical limelight for some time, but is sure to return to it with his haunting performance as Dave.  He twists and turns just when we think he can't feel anymore.  It's a work of brilliant restraint.
     Bacon also returns to past glory.  He has long been a qualtiy actor at playing anything.  Here he plays the straight man who threatens to break down as he sees his childhood return in a new, forgotten form.  He puts emotion and dimensions into a character who seems to be the least showy of all of the leads
     Mystic River will stay with you.  Long after you've left the theater you may hear, as I have, the haunting theme from the film.  It works so well with the film that both coincide as one at times.  And just as the song will return to you, so will the drama you saw played out on the big screen. 

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