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screenplay [ Movie ]
By Victoria Alexander

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by [Pascovicci ]

2004-03-02  |     | 


By Victoria Alexander

Mel Gibson is being criticized for filming The New Testament exactly as written 2,000 years ago. Imagine if he had decided to change Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." That ending is a bummer! Should something of historical importance be sanitized or rewritten because it might offend someone?

The most riveting thing about television news is it can bring us face to face with real suffering. Like the Roman gladiator games that entertained the masses with the climax of death (this primal need is now satisfied by fake death in movies and TV shows), suffering is a powerful stimulant. I can still recall the penetrating tears and rage of Fred Goldman and the palpable anguish of Chandra Levy's father. You could see Dr. Levy deteriorating daily. We expect to see grief when sudden tragedy grips people's lives. Video of Scott Peterson out on a run with his dog after the death of his wife and unborn son is not what we expect from grieving spouses.

MYSTIC RIVER begins with every parent's horror and it casts a shadow over the rest of the film. Three young South Boston boys, Dave, Jimmy, and Sean, are playing on their working-class street. A car approaches and, thinking the men are police detectives, one of the boys willingly goes off with them. The men are sexual predators and the boy, Dave, is repeatedly assaulted. After several days Dave escapes but the trauma haunts each of the boys. They remain in the neighborhood but go off in different directions.

Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who owns the neighborhood corner grocery store. He still has criminal ties. His first wife died and he raised their daughter alone. He has two other young daughters with his new wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Now, as Jimmy and his wife prepare for their youngest daughter's First Communion, his 19-year old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is murdered. He sees the police barricades; he sees his daughter's car.

Jimmy becomes undone with grief. He becomes emotionally and physically devastated.

His old friend Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective handling the murder with his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). Sean is having a weird, disturbing separation from his wife, who just calls him constantly without talking from an unknown location. Whatever happened between them precipitating her running off is never revealed (and is the only misstep in a well-crafted script).

Jimmy's neighbor Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) has married Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a young son, but he has been forever changed by his childhood ordeal. Hunched over, uncommunicative, he is crushed by life. Working menial jobs, he nonetheless has a nice family. Celeste, for some reason, appears afraid of him. Her frantic behavior colors our perceptions of Dave.

The night of Katie's murder, Dave comes home very late covered with blood and a gaping wound in his chest. He tells Celeste he was attacked and may have killed the mugger. For the next few days Celeste keeps looking for news about a dead man in the papers. Finding none, she begins to suspect Dave killed Katie. Dave tells Celeste he did not kill Katie but she does not believe him.

The complex murder mystery is laden with other suspects as Jimmy decides to do his own investigation. Dave and Celeste spend a lot of time with Jimmy and his wife consoling them. While Sean and Whitey investigate and interview everyone, suspicion falls on Dave. He fails to tell the detectives he was at the same bar as Katie the night she disappeared. Instead of dealing with Dave and her fears, Celeste goes to see Jimmy.

It is a flawless production lead by director Clint Eastwood. His famous style, pared down and efficient, work brilliantly with this material. Outside of Sean Penn's very black leather jacket, I cannot recall a single costume or set design. This movie is all about the characters and the emotional impact the childhood tragedy had on their lives.

The screenplay by Brain Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, is perfectly suited for Eastwood. The director likes dark, troubled characters with a history that appears to be choking them. This "felled by fate" tale is boldly exploited by Penn and Robbins. Bacon's character, as I mentioned, is not adequately developed. However, all three are troubled men trying to function on a daily basis.

Eastwood's expert handling of the material also allows Penn and Robbins to flesh out characters that are essentially withdrawn and closed off. Penn silently expresses boundless grief while sitting on his porch talking to friends. Penn's performance and Eastwood's direction are standouts and will help kick-off the Academy Award nominations race.

Victoria Alexander can be reached by visiting or, directly, at [email][email protected][/email].

Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and NPV Entertainment a Malpaso production

Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland
Based on the novel by: Dennis Lehane
Producers: Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt, Clint Eastwood
Executive producer: Bruce Berman
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: Henry Bumstead
Music: Clint Eastwood
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editor: Joel Cox

Jimmy: Sean Penn
Dave: Tim Robbins
Sean: Kevin Bacon
Whitey: Laurence Fishburne
Celeste: Marcia Gay Harden
Annabeth: Laura Linney
Val Savage: Kevin Chapman
Brendan: Thomas Guiry
Katie: Emmy Rossum

Running time -- 137 minutes
MPAA rating R

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