Drowning in cliches

Scenery-chewing performances can’t keep “Mystic River” from turning into a staid police procedural.

Tom Horgen

It’s kind of a burning feeling. Right in your gut. We’ve all felt it. When a movie of heavy, emotional power is taking you down one path – a path you’re finding quite fascinating – and then boom, turns and scampers down another, less interesting one.

“Mystic River,” Clint Eastwood’s latest endeavor behind the camera, gives you that feeling. In the end, his film turns out to be a tightly-wound – as in, cohesive like crazy glue – and very effective murder mystery. Which is unfortunate, because it had the potential to be much more than simply a great episode of “Law & Order.”

In the first hour of “Mystic River,” Eastwood and his mighty troupe of actors create a textured, consuming portrait of working-class Boston. Sean Penn plays a father whose 19-year-old daughter is found beaten to death not far from the family’s neighborhood grocery store. From the get-go we’re pretty sure we know who did the killing. And it’s this knowledge that initially allows us to step back and appreciate Eastwood’s commentary on violence and how people in blue collar communities react to it. The iconic director/actor has been quite successful in this territory – he created a fascinating critique of the Western genre 10 years ago with “Unforgiven” – so another meditation on violent behavior should come at no surprise.

Of course any mental juices Dirty Harry was hoping to unleash with “Mystic River” quickly dissipate as police procedure and a batch of new twists commandeer the production. Any sort of critical edge is deadened as the film hurtles itself into whodunit postulating.

Which is too bad, because Sean Penn and Tim Robbins exhaust themselves with two blistering performances. With his tattooed, hulking physique, Penn’s ex-con-turned mournful-superdad is miles away from the fragile role he played in his last film, “I Am Sam.” He’s so intense that during moments of heated anger he seems to be reddening his skin tone almost on command. As for Robbins’ character, the murder suspect, he was kidnapped and sexually abused as a child – and it shows. Robbins is so good here that you can almost read the lifetime of trauma on his face.

Two films come to mind when thinking about what “Mystic River,” with its great performances and solid directing, could have been. Robert Altman’s “Gosford Park” and Spike Lee’s underrated “Summer of Sam” both used the murder mystery genre as means

to discuss more pressing issues. Altman’s whodunit took place inside a 1930s British mansion and commented on the relationship between aristocrats and their servants. It was a metaphor for the way the owners of industry depend on laborers to keep the means of production going. As for “Summer of Sam,” Lee did what he usually does. In using the murder mystery formula, he made attempts at critiquing everything – race, sexual relations, media obsession and on and on.

“Mystic River” was on its way to becoming a multi-leveled film but instead pumped all its energy into twists and thrills. As the potential for intelligent commentary slipped away, the film became nothing more than a well-executed exercise in genre filmmaking.

It should be mentioned, though, that the final sequence in “Mystic River” shows signs of the direction Eastwood initially set out on. Without giving away the ending, just remember – if you take anything away from his botched critique, it’s that violence only empowers those that are already in power. Unfortunately, the film’s last ditch posturing can’t undo the overall stumbling that led it into “Law & Order” land.