In the Blood 

Violence and justice in Mystic River, just violence in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Directed by Clint Eastwood from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), based on a bestseller by ace mystery writer Dennis Lehane, starring such respected, actorly heavyweights as Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Marcia Gay Harden, Mystic River has as unimpeachable a pedigree as any American studio film in recent memory. And though it may not quite be the masterpiece that the early buzz suggests, it certainly makes the most of the tremendous talents at its disposal.

A mournful meditation on revenge and guilt, Mystic River is perhaps Eastwood's most mature and moving examination yet of what has always been his great subject: the peculiarly American juxtaposition of vigilante violence and official justice.

The film flows from two linked moments of violence, which, in turn, beget other violence -- one moment that pulls three childhood friends apart and another, 30 years later, that brings them back together.

Mystic River opens in the '70s (the period established by a transistor radio broadcasting a Red Sox game with Luis Tiant on the mound), in a working-class Irish-Catholic Boston neighborhood, as three boys play street hockey. There's Dave, who seems a little slow, Jimmy, a reckless kid who wants to steal a neighborhood car for joyriding, and Sean, a cautious kid who frowns on Jimmy's plan. Finding a slab of sidewalk where the concrete is still wet, the boys begin writing their names only to be confronted by two older men posing as cops, who take Dave away in the back of their car, where he is kept for several days and sexually abused before escaping.

Flashing forward to the same neighborhood decades later, Dave (Robbins) is an introverted husband and father who doesn't seem to have quite recovered from his childhood ordeal. Jimmy (Penn) is an ex-con who runs a corner grocery store in the neighborhood but is still crime-connected. And Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a Boston homicide detective, an outsider in the old neighborhood, working his beat with an astute African-American partner named Whitey (Laurence Fishburne).

Jimmy and Dave are still friends -- Jimmy's ice-queen wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) is a cousin of Dave's warm but (understandably) skittish wife Celeste (Harden) -- but all three friends are brought together when Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) turns up missing, and later dead, on the same night that Dave returns home late covered in someone else's blood. A distraught Jimmy, not waiting for the legal system to work, has a couple of his neighborhood goons out looking for the killer, while Sean is assigned to work the case. (The parallel police and underworld investigations might be a nod to Fritz Lang's serial-killer masterpiece M, which would only be a beginning to the debt Mystic River owes to Lang's artful police procedurals.) As Sean and Whitey investigate the case, dual clues point strongly to two suspects: Dave, one of the last people to see Katie alive, and a neighborhood boy whom she had been dating.

By acclamation, Mystic River is Eastwood's finest film since Oscar-winner Unforgiven, and you'll find no argument here. A handsome, old-fashioned film, it's so stately, so measured, so patient, and so elegant that it acts as a formal rebuke to most other contemporary studio takes on this kind of material.

Mystic River is a mystery spiked with deep emotion and considerable gravitas. It has a tremendous feel for its location, for this almost tribal old-school neighborhood on the brink of gentrification. It's marked by a tight vocabulary of formal elements -- sure crosscutting and sweeping pans over the film's title waterway. Most of all, it seems intentionally driven by a vast series of doubles and rhymes: two wives, two mute witnesses, two murders, two investigations, two friends whose lives go in opposite directions, two heartbreaking shots --30 years apart --of Dave in the backseat of a car being taken away. And this matches the film's series of actorly one-on-one confrontations: Dave and Celeste, Dave and Jimmy, Celeste and Jimmy, Jimmy and Sean, Jimmy and Annabeth. But Eastwood's precise, conservative direction makes room for occasional visual flourishes, such as the operatic matching aerial shots that show Katie's bloodied, beaten body, found in a park, and nearby Jimmy howling as he's held back by a phalanx of cops.

As one might expect, Mystic River is as much an actor's film as it is a director's. Its performances are uniformly excellent, with Penn's and Robbins' showy turns perhaps bested by Harden, whose doting but doubtful wife is perhaps the film's most tragic figure.

Mystic River isn't perfect. Linney's underwritten part makes Annabeth's sinister, ruthless late transformation seem awkward and abrupt, and sometimes Eastwood reaches a little too much for effect (or for the Oscar) when the generally understated music swells more than necessary. But these are just quibbles.

"I'm gonna find him. I'm gonna find him before the police do and I'm gonna kill him," Jimmy says as he stands over Katie's lifeless body. His insistence on keeping that promise is the source of Eastwood's most effective critique yet of American vigilante justice. Mystic River ends with a patriotic neighborhood parade, all the film's major characters in the crowd. It looks welcoming and friendly, but for one character it's a moment of horror and loss that brings Mystic River full circle. -- Chris Herrington

E-mail: herrington@memphisflyer.com

We all have heroes in our lives, and the more interests we have, the more kinds of heroes we have. As a theater director, my heroes are the revolutionary Peter Brook and Anne Bogart. As a playwright, I dig Terrence McNally and Tennessee Williams. As a reviewer of films, my hero has (and always will be) Roger Ebert. Not only is he a fine journalist in the traditional sense, there is a brilliantly perceptive humor in his work and a true sense of perspective about the role of film in our lives and the priority of other things like decency, happiness, and respect. That, and the fact that we generally agree about the quality of films 95 percent of the time, makes Roger (or "Rog" as my sister and I call him, casually, as if we know him) my movie-reviewer hero. Imagine my shock and dismay as I read the following in his review of the new remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "There is not a shred of a reason to see it. Those who defend it will have to dance through mental hoops of their own devising, defining its meanness and despair as 'style' or 'vision' or 'a commentary on our world.'"

Sorry, Rog. I kind of liked it.

Let me qualify. Two of the last horror films I saw were Cabin Fever and Bad Boys 2. (I put BB2 into the horror category because of the number of corpses that pile up, the frightening uses of dead bodies, the feeling of depravity the film elicits, and the amount of time spent in discussion of Martin Lawrence's backside.) These were two of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen, and I came out of both of them feeling very bad about the human condition and myself. Those films were ugly and disrespectful of people and the audience, and they flaunted it. It was difficult to sit through them without sincerely resenting the fact that good actors were employed for purposes of evil. Those films were mean. So, it was refreshing to see Chainsaw, which did not seem to be making any social commentary but instead wanted to provide a good, old-fashioned scare and then did.

Plot: Teens (or early 20-somethings it's hard to tell) in a van in 1973 are on their way to a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert by way of a stretch of nowhere in Texas. Along the way, they pick up a stray girl who ominously portends death and despair, and then the aforementioned death and despair occur -- by way of a chainsaw-wielding maniac with a leather face. Eek! And that's all the plot this film uses, though the path to escape is always clouded by a gaggle of horrifying locals -- fronted by R. Lee Ermey (the bone-chilling drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket) as a corrupt sheriff.

So, I liked this movie. It scared me. So much, in fact, that I almost walked out. But now that I think on it, I was probably just grossed out more than anything. There's a lot of handling of body parts (and innards) in this film and that bothered me, because the film is realistically and gorgeously shot. The color palette has lots of ambers and siennas, at once evoking the '70s setting (making it feel more like history or a memory) and giving it an arty, glossy edge. There is wonderful imagery: a decaying farm estate surrounded by cornfields, a graveyard of dead cars, even a slaughterhouse. And there is a jaw-droppingly painful, beautiful scene in a basement that involves Christ symbolism, lots of blood, and feet desperately searching for ground on piano keys.

If I have a criticism, it's that several elements of the movie are scarier than Leatherface, who should be the spookiest in the bunch. That sheriff is absolutely terrifying -- essentially, the manifestation of our fear of the law. Two women are encountered in a trailer home, and they, in their straightforward down-home friendliness, are somehow creepier than a deformed man with a chainsaw who rips off the faces of his victims to make a mask for himself. Maybe it's the difference between understatement and overstatement. Maybe because the film, like so many others, unfairly exploits rural Americans as symbols of ignorance and menace. That's my other criticism, or rather, message to Hollywood: Hey, Hollywood! Between Enron, Martha Stewart, and Dick Cheney, can't you think of a nice horror movie where city folks are the villains? Until that time, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre will effectively scare and gross the bejeesus out of you. Don't eat an hour before (or after) jumping into this pool.. -- Bo List

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