The Year in Movies

Is Mystic River Overrated?
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 7 2004 8:19 AM

The Year in Movies

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Hi folks,

How about some truth in advertising today—i.e., we take up one of the questions Slate had slugged on its cover all day yesterday. Is Mystic River overrated? To me, alas, yes. I don't mean this in a snarky contrarian spirit, and because at least two of you (Manohla and Tony) love it so dearly, I wish I didn't have to pick this fight. I enjoyed the film up through the penultimate act, admired the stateliness of its craft, thanked it for answering the annual need for an honorably ambitious Hollywood film for grown-ups. (Unlike House of Sand and Fog, a Situation Tragedy if ever there was one. Jennifer Connelly and Ben Kingsley are good and even have a few grand moments, but the characters they play—an exiled Iranian lackey of the Shah whom we're supposed to pity because he pissed away the $250,000 he came to America with and a paralyzed child-woman with the judgment of a bottlecap—seemed to me jerks without precedent in recent film.)

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In a way my quarrel is not so much with the film, which is mostly solid and professional and clearly one of the better entertainments of the fall, as with its reception. I can't see a single aspect of MysticRiver that approaches greatness, and none of the eloquent cases made for it have convinced. Critics have tended to praise the film's feeling of inevitability, the inexorability of the tragic sequence of events. I didn't feel this. Or rather, what I felt every step of the way was Clint Eastwood behind the curtain whispering: Inevitable! Inexorable! and flipping the lever to give a suitable cloud-and-thunder effect. Not that he isn't sincere—one of the genuinely moving things about the film is its evident sincerity. Eastwood just wants to help things along, make sure we get the message.

Anyway, the mere feeling that "the things happening on screen are inevitable" does not seem to me a guarantee of quality or even a sufficiently meaningful statement. I'm sure we could come up with a list of plays, films, and TV shows, ranging from Sophocles to crassly negligible sitcoms, in which the sequence of events obeys a fairly rigorous logic of inevitably. If I'm not mistaken, it was the New Republic's Stanley Kauffman who pointed out that the plot of Mystic River conveys the same feeling of gritty inevitability as the investigative, Jerry Orbach half of a Law and Order episode. This seemed apt to me. Again, I do not mean this as a takedown. To rank among the really powerful, convincing episodes of Law and Order would be, in my book, reasonably high praise.

But great cinema it ain't. Off the top of my head, reasons why Mystic River strikes me as overrated:

I knew way too soon, well before Eastwood revealed it, who was responsible for Sean Penn's daughter's death. The way Eastwood films said person and a certain recognizable pattern from detective fiction—the red herring here, process of elimination there, who-are-we-overlooking-game—gave it away.

Sean Penn is near-great, fierce and mesmerizing—as he sucks the air out of the room. He compels our attention with a diva's self-consciousness that is impossible not to be impressed by—but as with a diva, this drags you out of the story into awe for the performer. Watching him, I got distracted and started thinking about the history of various schools of acting, and what's it like for the naturalistic guys in this scene with him, and how did he prepare? (With regard to the strange meta-acting quality of Penn's performance, a friend of mine had a similar experience and called me to talk about it. "At first," he said, "I thought I was reminded of James Dean when he would start to go too far. But I realized that's not it. What Penn was reminding me of was Frank Gorshin's classic impression of Kirk Douglas when he would start to overact.")

Developments as we near the end feel so thinly prepared. Kevin Bacon's sudden lack of professionalism. Kevin Bacon's reconciliation with his wife (which wife, you will remember, is represented at only a few points in the film, and always as a pair of lips speaking into a phone. Again, I say: television.) And Laura Linney's 11th-hour metamorphosis into Satan's consort—where'd that come from?

The whole feeling of inevitability itself. What exactly is the truth being conveyed here? How generally does it apply? Is it merely that Southies are this violent, repressed, and corrupt? American men? American women (God help us if we're either skittering mice like Marcia Gay Harden or vampires like Linney. I guess we can but hope to be the dead girl or the disembodied lips)? Peoples around the world who, despite a veil of modernity, continue to live as tribes? Humans from the dawn of time? I don't really have any idea. But in any case, while it is an (obvious) universal truth that human beings have the capacity for violence, is it really a universal truth that they all will collude in unleashing it? Always? Inevitably and inexorably?

It's Clint Eastwood's prerogative to think so, but I think that's a preposterous notion. It is as preposterous, and sentimental in its own way, as a filmmaker propounding the universal truth that all communities will in the end be guided by compassionate love, always. I get the feeling there are many human capacities (humor comes to mind) that Eastwood simply doesn't understand as well as violence, or know how to dramatize. Which would be fine—how many great directors only know about one thing?—except that violence is the truth of choice for so many critics. This is understandable, because violence is so cinematic, and explorations of violence can feel moral and important. But I think it leads to a distorted, unexamined critical consensus about what is important, and what is truth.

Gotta go for now. Any takers?

Best,
Sarah

P.S. Looking this over, I fear it looks like a trashing of the film, and that is not an accurate reflection of how I feel.  In fact, except for calling it "morally wobbly" or some such I gave it a positive review, in the following sense. I think it works quite well as entertainment, and on the level of entertainment it does clearly have the power of a well-rendered whodunnit. What I've tried to explain here are a few of the factors that prevent me from feeling really devastated by it—and devastated is how you would have to feel to think it a masterpiece.

Each year, film critics gather in the "Movie Club" to chew on the year in film. This year's group includes Manohla Dargis from the Los Angeles Times, David Edelstein from Slate, J. Hoberman from the Village Voice, Sarah Kerr from Vogue, and A.O. Scott from the New York Times. Hoberman is the author, most recently, of The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties.

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