Heavy-handed drama and an acting tour de force. Cry me a river.
Clint Eastwood's record behind the camera is a little spotted but his latest is perhaps his greatest. A hard-hitting drama that's picked up a fair degree of Oscar expectations and for the most part it's justified. The arguments may be reminiscent of About Schmidt in that the acting performances makes what could easily be a made for TV movie feel like so much more, but seeing as it's both excellently done and occasionally heart rending I don't thing anyone's hackles will be raised over it.
As a child, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) was abducted and abused by two pederasts posing as policemen. This has an understandable effect on him that remains in adulthood. He is outwardly respectable, married and with a son but even walking through his neighbourhood brings back haunting memories that has left him a shaky, nervous member of society. His two friends with him on that fateful day have taken their own paths through life that have diverged from Dave's. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) winds up as a homicide detective while Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) runs a corner store, going straight after a stint in the slammer on an armed robbery charge.
They have there own share of misery in their lives, Devine's wife leaving him and plaguing him with nuisance phone calls. Jimmy would seem to be fine apart from a healthy concern over who his teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) dates, but his would grows considerably darker once Katie's body is found brutally slain. By coincidence, Devine is assigned to investigate the case aided by his sidekick Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). In what we hope is a further coincidence, on the night of Katie's death Dave returns home late at night, his hands covered in blood and wounds consistent with dishing out a beating. He says he thrashed a mugger. Given how uncomfortable and shifty Dave looks and seems at the best of times how much can his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) trust his story?
This is the sort of movie that a certain brand of critics has in mind when they declare something a 'proper' movie. While we reckon that if you can't take joy in throwaway japery and demand at least an hour of solid navel gazing per film you have no business seeing any cinema whatsoever when a film is done this well you begin to see their point. All three of the main characters end up crying at various points so this is clearly a 'proper' drama. Brian Helgeland provides an adaptation of Dennis Lehane's novel that's thankfully more in line with LA Confidential than his atrocious The Sin Eater. It's a simple tale of trust and identity that eschews the twisty turny noodling that so often afflicts the murder mystery genre (Basic, I'm looking at you) and it's all the more effective because of it.
The perhaps slightly ponderous pace that Eastwood adopts fits the story to a tee. Without a continual flow of random events and revelations being thrown at the characters it allows them to grow and develop in a way that seems to occur so rarely these days. Not being a particular fan of either Sean Penn or Kevin Bacon Mystic River comes as something of a revelation, as it proves that these guys can actually act. And act with such emotion that it's difficult not to feel the same emotions they go through, especially as Sean's gangster hardcase bravado erodes and breaks to reveal his turmoil. Bacon gets to be the closest thing to a calm emotional centre of the film, trying to separate his bizarre relationship problem from a case where personal detachment was never really an option.
Already established as one of Hollywood's brightest actors Tim Robbins has nothing to prove, but he goes and does it anyway. There's a difficult tightrope to walk when playing someone with such deep-rooted scars as Dave, and a less skilled performance could make the character ridiculous especially when Dave eventually cracks under the stress of it all, his internal monologue spilling out in front of Celeste in a moment that is at once heartbreaking and vaguely sinister. Despite his generally damaged persona he's also capable of pulling out some surprising moments, particularly his bamboozling of Whitey and Sean's questioning techniques that leave them looking like chumps. If he's capable of pulling out uncharacteristic acts like that, it's all the more likely that he could pull out an uncharacteristic act of murder, dontcha think?
While the three main characters provide a compelling and defining performance, they are backed by a supporting cast that's equally able. Celeste is put though the wringer as much as either Markum or Dave, and Harden does well to convey her struggles without resorting to shorthand clich?. Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson provide suitable menace in the role of the Savage brother, the lazily named local muscle and friends of Markum who so a spot of independent investigation to 'aid' the police. It's only Laura Linney that feels underused as Jimmy's wife (and Celeste's cousin) Annabeth, but that's hardly her fault. Strangely the only actor that feels out of place is Laurence Fishburne, entirely as a result of the media saturation he's received as Morpheus in his Matrix / Reloaded /Revolutions stint. Hearing him speak in a way that isn't hammy, overblown and unrealistic now sounds strange and for that the Wachowskis must be punished. Frivolity aside he's as effective as he can be in a role which at times is little more than a sounding board for Devine's thoughts.
There's not too many weaknesses to point at here. As noted before Eastwood's direction is in a technical sense solid yet unremarkable, but that in itself fits the drama well. Clearly more time has been spent drawing superlative acting performances rather than imagining elaborate tracking shots and that should be applauded rather than jeered. Eastwood even composes a decent score to accompany events so it's not as if we can accuse the man of being lazy. The only glitch seems to be the movies ending, as it meanders down a lengthy denouement that feels like it ought to have been given more punch. Even this has it's advantage, as after it's climatic events it hints at how things may shake out and gives a sound base for the more imaginative to fill in the rest of the character life stories.
It's just slightly too long and slightly too ponderous in slightly too many places to be the kind of movie that you can peg as a classic on a first view. Slightly. This may have to be revised once I can get intimate with it on the home formats, and it may yet get that elusive final snowflake. At the moment it can be recommended as one of the best dramas to appear this year, hell, this decade. Watch at your earliest convenience.
Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.
Tim Robbins (Dave Boyle)
Kevin Bacon (Sean Devine)
Laurence Fishburne (Whitey Powers)
Marcia Gay Harden (Celeste Boyle)
Laura Linney (Annabeth Markum)
Kevin Chapman (Val Savage)
Adam Nelson (Nick Savage)
Emmy Rossum (Katie Markum)