The next film in my attempt at self-education is Mystic River (2003), based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, and directed by the one and only Clint Eastwood. I knew very little about it going in, save for the fact that ***SPOILER ALERT*** Sean Penn’s daughter gets killed, and the film progresses along side the investigation of her murder. I have to say I walked away from it mildly shaken, and thoroughly pleased.

Mystic River, for starters, offers up interesting performances for its central cast. For instance, I can’t honestly remember a time (other than Jacob’s Ladder) where I’ve seen Tim Robbins so dark and disturbing. While his kind eyes and soft face are still entirely recognizable, he very effectively vanishes into the role. Similarly, Lawrence Fishburn offers an entertainingly convincing turn as a foul-mouthed detective, who doesn’t dick around. If he wants answers, he gets ‘em, and he always seems to know the score.

Marcia Gay Harden deserved her Oscar nomination that year, giving an absolutely captivating performance. You believe every twitch as she becomes more unnerved by what she doesn’t know about her own husband, and your heart breaks as you see her slowly succumb to the paranoia. The entire film, all I kept thinking was how she was suffering from a nasty case of Lady Macbeth syndrome. Having covered for her husband based on his alibi, she quickly starts to question her uncompromising faith in him. Why was there no report of a mugger? Where did the blood come from? Why was he at the same bar as Jimmy’s daughter? She starts to connect the dots in her head because of the guilt that she may have wrongly stood by her man, and her slip towards the brink of insanity becomes mesmerizing. Harden gives perhaps one of the most understated and brilliant performances of the entire film.

Kevin Bacon was Kevin Bacon: stoic, pensive, and purposeful, but he doesn’t stand out as a strong character. He’s without a doubt the glue that holds the story together, but rather than a super glue, he’s a bit more akin to a watery PVA. Neil Buchana would approve, at least.

Throughout the film Eastwood made a clear intention to use light and shadow to express much of the purpose of the film: to expose the duality within us all, and the potential darkness that dwells within all of us. This play with shadow and light mirrors the truth we hide deep within ourselves, and the lies that hide what we’re too afraid to admit. Frequently throughout the film Eastwood lit his subjects in a manner that keeps the face half in shadow, seemingly emphasizing this sense of duality.

This play with light and shadow brings to mind old Film Noir from the 1940s, with a contemporary spin, of course. Far less dramatic than in the heyday of the genre, and far less severe and theatrical, it’s used to lend a distinctly sinister tone to the film. As the pieces of the puzzle fall into place, you think you’ve learned to make sense of it all. But the final scene between Penn and Robbins throws everything out of whack. Doubt sets in, the same doubt that’s steadily infecting Harden, and the lighting across Robins’ face leads to confusion and a mounting tension.

Penn’s intentions are clear, he means to kill him, and the play with light simply emphasizes the darkness he’s capable of. But the way Eastwood lit Robbins shows us the little boy who’d been locked in a dark cellar for weeks. We aren’t seeing his potential for malice and cruelty, we’re seeing the cruelty done to him. The traces of what he’d been through are so deeply rooted in himself that there’s no way of hiding it. He’s still trapped in that cellar, and he’ll probably never get out.

Eastwood did a wonderful job here, and gives us a complex character study that keeps you thoroughly engrossed for its duration. There are two sides to everyone, and here we see the human potential for terrible things, and terrible suffering, and what both can do to us: the scars they inflict, the irreparable damage they cause, and the consequences we all must live with.

This post was originally published on my tumblr on September 5, 2011.