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MYSTIC RIVER
Blu-ray Edition

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney
Director: Clint Eastwood
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 138 Minutes
Release Date: February 2, 2010

Sometimes, I think all three of us got in that car…”

Film ****

This past decade delivered its share of brilliant films. Charting high on that list is the powerful Mystic River.

When one thinks of Clint Eastwood, they are likely to think of his larger than life presence as either a mysterious outlaw or that of a certain vigilante cop. While those images do come to mind when you hear the name, it’s Eastwood’s longtime legacy as a filmmaker that people will most likely think instantly of, thanks in part to the director’s 24th feature film, Mystic River, which I am here to proclaim as his finest filmmaking achievement, surpassing the seemingly unsurpassable Unforgiven.

Working completely behind the camera, Eastwood’s film has been adapted for the screen from the novel by Dennis Lehane. It is most striking in that it’s like nothing Eastwood has brought to screen before, and yet it deals with a theme he has dealt with in a previous film or two before; that of a character returning to visit a darker side of themselves they thought was left far behind. And the way it connects a pivotal event in the past to a tragic event in the present is nothing short of mind-blowing. This is screenwriter Brian Helgeland’s finest hour since his Oscar winning work for L.A. Confidential.

Set in a working class section of Boston, the story centers in on three individual characters who were once close friends, but whose connection deteriorated following a dark event in their childhood. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is an ex-convict who now runs a local market. Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is a Boston homicide detective. And Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) is a part time fix-it man.

Thirty years ago, the three were inseparable. One day, during an innocent game of street hockey, a car drives up, a man identifying himself as a cop hassles the kids for a harmless act of defacing public property. Dave, who doesn’t live on the same street as the other two, is forced away in the car, only to be never heard from for the next few days. Although Dave eventually eluded his abductors, the rest of his youth, along with the bond he shared with Jimmy and Sean, was shattered from that moment on.

Thirty years down the line, an even bigger tragedy in one of the men’s lives reunites the three. Jimmy’s 19 year old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), has turned up dead in a nearby park. Jimmy is devastated beyond belief, as any devoted father would be. Sean is the lead investigating detective assigned to the case, along with his partner, Powers (Laurence Fishburne).

For Jimmy, played to utter perfection by Penn in a much deserved Oscar-winning performance, the loss of his daughter forces him to explore the darker points of his past. He was once a criminal, and did time in prison just as Katie was brought into the world. His first wife died not too long afterward. He’s since remarried to Annabeth (Laura Linney) and has two younger daughters. Katie was Jimmy’s reason for putting his crooked past behind him, and the loss has triggered Jimmy’s pursuit of revenge on the culprit, even if it means resorting to street justice.

The tragedy allows Dave to reunite with his long lost pals, but his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) is put on a level of suspecting. The same night Katie went missing, Dave comes home to his wife covered in blood. He tells his wife he retaliated on a mugger, but when Celeste sees no report in the paper about the incident, and as Dave’s explanation to everyone about his hand seem to change, suspicions seem to grow even stronger.

And although he should seem as the better off of the three, Sean’s life hasn’t bettered much. Having been estranged from his wife for sometime, he receives daily phone calls from her which result in nothing but silence. In addition, Sean’s partner feels that his personal connection, especially to that of Dave, an eventual suspect, make him a crucial liability to the investigation.

What elevates Mystic River above the level of a conventional thriller is the authenticity of the characters, as brought to life by an extraordinary cast of actors. Sean Penn has long been one of our most important actors, and his high level of range is illustrated in his performance of Jimmy, one of the most emotionally raw performances you will ever see unfold before you. The scene where Jimmy erupts into an emotional rage upon discovering that his daughter has been murdered is a moment that will never be forgotten.

The same can be said for Tim Robbins, who also won an Oscar for his performance. The role of Dave is Robbins’ most challenging part to date, and results in a pure revelation for the actor, who echoes his brilliant work in The Shawshank Redemption. The story also allows elements of the character to be revealed more and more as the film progresses. Dave has been emotionally fractured since the dark incident in his life, but as scenes go on, we discover that there is more to the man than meets the eye. His interrogation moment with Sean and Powers is pure proof.

Kevin Bacon instantly admitted during the press release that he was more proud of his performance here than in any of his previous work, and he is very right to think that. Bacon has delivered many outstanding performances, and Mystic River is now at the top of that list. He provides an ever so convincing portrayal of a man in a personal and professional dilemma. It’s only too bad that Bacon wasn’t able garner on Oscar nod alongside his headlining cast mates, but his top flight work remains ever so evident.

Clint Eastwood’s triumph as a filmmaker is illustrated magnificently in Mystic River, his most masterful directed piece to date, which is also one of 2003’s truly great motion pictures.

BONUS: Look closely and you’ll spot Clint’s old nemesis, Tuco, aka Eli Wallach as the non-senile store clerk being questioned by Bacon and Fishburne.

Video ****

Though I’ve only seen a few of Eastwood’s films on Blu-ray, I’ve come to realize that they look all the more incredible, especially when Tom Stern is the cinematographer. The detail is rich and immense throughout the presentation, even in the darkest lit sequences (Robbins telling his son a bedtime story, the climatic confrontation by the river). Colors are at an all time strong level here, as well. I’ve viewed the DVD many times and can certainly say that it’s worth upgrading to Blu-ray on the basis of the picture quality alone.

Audio ****

Of all of Eastwood’s films, excluding his WWII films, I’ve always found this to be the strongest in terms of sound quality, and Warner has done a marvelous upgrade to that of a DTS HD mix. The balancing of the intense dramatic dialogue with Eastwood’s moving and haunting score (the best one he’s done to date) is as perfect as it gets. The darker, moodier scenes also play off more effectively, most notably the scenes flashing back to Dave running in the woods. The lossless audio does a tremendous job in making this amazingly powerful film even more so.

Features ***

All of the extras from the three-disc DVD release have made it onto this single disc Blu-ray, with the exception of the bonus CD soundtrack. Included is a commentary track with Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon, as well as two documentaries; “Beneath the Surface” and “From Page to Screen”, which each include interview segments with cast and crew members who reveal what it was like to make a movie in such a short period of time, as in the Eastwood tradition. Also featured is the always engaging Charlie Rose Show interviews, including individual segments with Eastwood, Robbins and Bacon. Lastly, there is a teaser and a theatrical trailer.

Summary:

Mystic River is both a powerful suspense drama and a remarkable character exploration, brought to illustrative perfection by Mr. Eastwood and the strong acting from Penn, Robbins, Bacon and the rest of the cast. One of the best films of the decade is now available in a superb, must own Blu-ray edition!

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