The beginning of Mystic River presents us with three characters as children and an apparently arbitrary twist of fate. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave get caught writing their names in concrete, and their catcher, posing as a cop (with mock-priest in tow), drives away in his car with Dave, who is not heard from again until four days later when he escapes from a basementful of abuse. The reason why Dave and no one else is taken seems to be because he lives several streets away while Sean (the good kid) and Jimmy (the tough kid) live in abodes more adjacent to the scene of their vandalism.
Which brings us to the present: Jimmy is an ex-con gone straight due to the love and softening influence of his daughter, Sean is a straight-and-narrow officer of the Massachusetts state police with an estranged wife, and Dave is damaged goods, married with a son and a penchant for wandering around mumbling about wolves, werewolves, and vampires. The three former friends get pulled back into each other’s company when Jimmy’s daughter is found dead, Sean is head investigator, and Dave becomes the obvious suspect.
There are two things wrong with Mystic River, which isn’t to say that it’s not a decent film. It is a good watch, much better than most of what you’d see on an average evening at the Cineplex. The performances of the main actors (Sean Penn as Jimmy, Kevin Bacon as Sean, and Tim Robbins as Dave) veer near astounding, but that’s where we come to a paradox in the material of the film. There’s a lot of flourish but no background, great acting but little character. Penn, Robbins, and Bacon put their all into being the people that we see on the screen (just check Robbins’ opening walking sequence; he seems a man hunched and defeated, reasonably discomforted by his own body), but with three main characters to watch, time and attention get necessarily strained. Who are we supposed to feel for? The film doesn’t have the temporal capacity to flesh out the characters, aside from constantly reminding us of that one fateful day, which is a shame because each of the actors is so watchable.
The second problem with the film is one of internal logic. Why are we supposed to feel anything? The arbitrary nature of the trauma suggests a chaotic, irrational meting out of punishments, but the characters (or at least the stereotypes thereof) and their crucial decision seem to be firmly in place when we see our protagonists as children—the good kid, the bad kid, and the schlub (pariah). One decision seems to alter the day, yet it’s treated like fate in the end. If it is indeed fate, why insist that the audience needs to connect on an emotional level with any of these characters? The film doesn’t have the nerve to leave the viewer feeling cold, and it lingers in melodrama where it could stretch into meditation. Mystic River‘s not bad for melodrama, but it seems to want more. It could be more.