What really impressed me about Mystic River was its ability to keep me guessing without me realizing that I was still guessing. When it comes to the central plot of who committed the film’s murder, the film introduces the main suspect in such a way that you immediately recognize that he is the one who is going to be accused, although you feel confident that there is some kind of rational explanation and that he is innocent. By about halfway through, you have let go of that impression, and, in my case, you start pre-planning your review, thinking about condemning the movie, and society as a whole for failing to properly care for the suspect during his troubled youth.
Then, once it’s all laid out for you at the end, you’re not quite sure what to feel. Outrage? Pity? Guilt? The film does such a remarkable job of explaining its characters and their motivations that it’s not easy to just assign accountability for the fallout and leave it at that. With its troubling outcomes, particularly the tragedy of a recent widow frantically trying to get her son’s attention in a parade, while everyone else, including those responsible for her husband’s death, are allowed to continue in their white-picket existences, the film stays with you for a long while after it’s over.
It would be impossible to talk about Mystic River without mentioning the acting. Sean Penn is incredible right out of the box. We begin knowing little about the characters, including Penn’s Jimmy Marcus. We first meet him as a man whose world revolves around his daughter. Even with our only information being his paternal affiliations, Penn`s performance is layered and consistent enough that as we learn more, about his violent and criminal past, it changes what we know about the character without changing how we see him. The character`s actions already fit into the person we’ve met.
On the opposite side of things is Tim Robbins’ Dave Boyle, who, beyond a childhood trauma, we know little about. While in biography, we know he’s a father and husband, we don`t know what kind of an impact the abuse he endured has had on him. We don’t know what he’s thinking, and, most importantly for the story, we don`t know what he’s capable of. Robbins plays the character as a man still trying to find himself without realizing that he’s still trying to find himself. He has routines, habits, and is able to carry on normal conversation, but always under a fog of uncertainty, suspicion, and a general unease.
By no means a comfortable watch, Mystic River is nonetheless an incredible movie, brought to life with upsetting vitality by its powerful cast.