Video Virgil: "Mystic River"

Winner of this year's Oscar, "Mystic River" has been compared with Greek tragedy. This intrigued me at first, because most Hollywood films treat of tragedy in the spirit described by William Dean Howells: "What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending."

"Mystic River" does not have a happy ending, which makes its Oscar win all the more impressive. But because it screws up the tragic ending it could have had, "Mystic River" wouldn't have won any prizes in Athens.

The three main characters, Irish-American boys from a fictional blue-collar section of Boston, are as happy as they're ever going to be on the day when one of them, Dave, gets abducted by a pair of pedophiles pretending to be cops. After several horrific days locked in a cellar and roughly abused, Dave escapes. But he is never the same, and neither are his two friends, Jimmy and Sean.

The film opens with Dave's ordeal, but in keeping with Greek unity of time, place, and action, that ordeal is implied more than shown. A purist might set up a chorus -- five guys in the Purple Shamrock bar? -- but director Clint Eastwood is not a purist. He's a master of film, and it is through film that he achieves the emotional tone, searing yet detached, of the tragic chorus.

Then commences the main plot. On the same street, in the same weather, we see the three boys grown up: Dave (Tim Robbins) is a lost soul barely held together by his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden). Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con with a second wife who walks the straight and narrow as proprietor of a mom-and-pop grocery. Sean (Kevin Baker) is a police detective who has split from the neighborhood.

For a while, the plot unfolds with Sophoclean swiftness. Jimmy's beloved daughter by his first wife, a mercurial beauty named Katie (Emmy Rossum), is murdered late one night and dumped in a park. Jimmy is frantic. Sean warily shows up to investigate, and Dave spooks Celeste by coming home that night with blood on his clothes and a not very credible story about having beaten and possibly killed a mugger.

And the tragic elements are all in place. A sense of foreboding, of deadly fate set in motion long ago, hangs over the proceedings, mixed with suspense: Did Dave kill Katie? Will Jimmy seek revenge before the facts are in? Will Sean's guilty loyalty cause him to blow the case? Then a series of interlocking recognitions and reversals culminates in a harrowing sequence: Jimmy's gangster-style execution of Dave, followed by the revelation that Dave was innocent, and Sean's decision to let Jimmy walk, his rage and sorrow at having killed his unhappy friend punishment enough.

So why not give "Mystic River" the prize? Because instead of stopping there, Eastwood adds four or five extraneous scenes, tying up loose ends that do not need tying up, and in general draining off all the tragic emotion that the film has successfully evoked. This ending-after-the-ending is so bad, I can't thinking that it was tacked on after the movie was market-tested on the same American public that Howells knew so well. If this is the case, then all I can do is thank Zeus that the theater of Dionysus didn't go in for such foolishness.

September 5, 2004 11:00 AM |



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This page contains a single entry by published on September 5, 2004 11:00 AM.

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