Clint Eastwood has a thing about original sin.
As a director he does his best – or at least most obviously impressive – work when he delves into the dark continent of masculine violence and all the guilt, repression and fierce righteousness that dwells there. Eastwood's men are tragically, gloomily fated to wreak horrible vengeance upon one another – and are then faced with the problem of how to live with the legacy of that deed.
In pure plot terms, this is of course the template of a thousand Westerns, including a few of those in which Eastwood starred for Italian maestro Sergio Leone in the '60s. But in Unforgiven (1992), his masterpiece, Eastwood dug deeper into the mystery of masculine violence, and its ambivalent appeal for audiences, than any Western storyteller before him.
But a word of caution to all Eastwood devotees. Attention paid by an undoubted artist to Man's Dark Side does not necessarily guarantee immediate great art. There can be something a little facile, at times, about Eastwood's pretensions to seriousness – knowing, as he does, that it doesn't take much to get critics crowing about his 'tragic vision', especially after a few low-class comedies featuring chimps or a couple of mechanical crime-and-detection potboilers.
There is a gap, at times, between Eastwood's aim and his reach. That gap was all too evident, for example, in another of his treatises on the male condition, White Hunter, Black Heart (1990), the glum artistry of which was signalled by (as a filmmaker friend once put it with only slight exaggeration) Eastwood and his cinematographer "forgetting to turn the movie lights on".
There is plenty of darkness abounding in Mystic River. And the dead of night is matched, shot for shot, by the enigma of the deep waters in that river – and by the pained, concentrated looks on the face of every guy who walks into frame.
Superbly adapted by Brian Helgeland from Dennis Lehane's novel – rarely has a complex plot with so many key events left unseen been so crystal clear in its unfolding – Mystic River begins with what psychoanalysts call a primal scene. Three children play in the street; one of them is hauled up and taken away by a bunch of adult men pretending to be cops. Hidden in the collective memory of this trio, henceforth, is a terrifying story of abuse that cries out to be repressed in order for this small Boston community to survive and function.
The abused boy grows up to be Dave (Tim Robbins). His two friends have taken starkly different life paths: Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a cop, and Jimmy (Sean Penn) is involved in some shady criminal business behind the facade of his role as a shopkeeper. All three characters struggle with different sorts of marital and family problems: Dave experiences moments of dissociation, Sean is separated from a wife who calls him regularly on the phone only to say nothing, and Jimmy is seething with a dozen strange, violent resentments.
As in a horror movie about the return of the repressed or a gory slasher thriller about a serial killer who just keeps popping back up, a terrible event – the murder of Jimmy's teenage daughter – re-opens all the wounds of the past. To reveal anymore would be to spoil the film's gradual, accumulative construction of details, incidents and connections weaving all the characters together. (Mindboggling thought for a cinephile: how the Dardenne brothers, who sought the rights too late, would have handled this material.)
Suffice to say, Eastwood takes sombre delight in prising open a Pandora's Box of ethical ambiguities. Do victims inevitably turn into victimisers, and are they to blame for their actions? Must justice proceed swiftly, via the savage principle of the aggrieved vigilante, rather by the due process of the law? Do people under stress confess to what other people want to hear them say – and if so, does that become established as the generally accepted truth?
Mystic River is undeniably a very impressive, utterly captivating drama. Eastwood's control of his material, on every level, is total – from his direction of an awesome male ensemble to the handling of poetic motifs such as the drain in the street first glimpsed in the opening scene. It is easy to praise Eastwood as a sobering critic of patriarchal society – someone who shows us, in the way only he can, how the cycle of violence and repression constantly renews itself in a sick world.
But is Eastwood's attitude really so squeaky clean here? Although it may not have been on his mind when he first developed the material, Eastwood has made a film that now resonates uncannily with the issues that have been most on the American mind post September 11 2001 – particularly during the war against Iraq. In reality as in this story, we are confronted with a violent campaign of action undertaken before all the evidence is in.
And what does Eastwood really think about this parallel? As always, in his work as in his interviews, he keeps the cards close to his chest. On the one hand, he makes sure he has at least one pure central character who escapes the general ethical murk and shapes up. (Luc Moullet describes this process as Eastwood's 'liberal demagogic' side as a storyteller: always one upright character and another to channel the audience's identification with that character.)
And, on the other hand, he indulges the figure of the avenger and surrounds him with a wounded, braying male pathos that seems to overflow the strict logic of the film's theme and its nominal anti-violence attitude. The question is whether – or to what precise extent – Eastwood mystifies the root causes of social violence by recourse to emotive myths like that of original sin. Strangest and most distressing of all, in this regard, is the scene late in the film with Jimmy's wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), which has come to be known as the Lady Macbeth scene.
Mystic River is a film to argue about. It has as much hidden material as that river into which it metaphorically plunges. That makes it a rich viewing experience, but not necessarily the successor to Unforgiven. Nonetheless, Eastwood has given us a remarkably vigorous testament late in his extraordinary career.
© Adrian Martin November 2003