Having read Dennis Lehane's strong crime book a few years ago, I knew that a very powerful and even upsetting film could be made from it. But Eastwood's coarse direction flattens out the story's effect and allows for some wildly uneven acting. You should come out of this film disturbed, but that certainly didn't happen for me.
There's enough punch in the material for the film to be effective as a detective thriller, and it's best in those scenes and the first scenes with Sean Penn's character Jimmy dealing with his daughter's murder.
But the book is also very good at evoking a sense of the insular lower middle class South Boston Irish Catholic community and the various personalities in it.
The film manages to do this to some degree, but some of the most interesting characters are given short shrift, particularly Annabeth (Laura Linney) who is Jimmy's wife.
In the book, she winds up being far more frightening a character than her husband, but Linney is barely in the film until the end where she has one Lady Macbeth-ish scene that comes out of nowhere. Linney also lacks a certain street-wise coarseness (as opposed to vulgarity) that the character needs.
Also, the film is not successful in making a clear connection between the abduction of Tim Robbins' character as a boy by two pedophiles and the present day occurrences. If you know the book, that's a tough job, but not impossible. There's some commentary about it by Penn and Bacon, but it's not enough.
The acting a very mixed bag - Eastwood has always tended to leave actors to their own devices, for better or worse.
Penn has some excellent scenes (his post-funeral scene on the porch with Tim Robbins is a beauty), but also some where he starts teetering into Al Pacino land (and not early good Pacino). Bacon is good, but his jaw is permanently clenched in one position. The scenes with him and his estranged wife on the phone could be cut - they add nothing and come off as clumsy.
Tim Robbins has two good scenes, but the rest of the time his acting is largely two-note and so mopey that his character comes off like a half-wit (which is not what he's supposed to be at all, based on the novel). He looks so miserable that there's nothing at stake for this character when the walls close in around him. He's marked as DOOMED and his unjust fate just seems inevitable rather than the moral outrage it should be.
Just as bad is Marcia Gay Harden who gives an annoying one-note lip-quivering, face-squinched performance throughout.
I did like Laurence Fishburne in a rather thankless role - he was the most relaxed onscreen of any of the stars (he has one good scene where he stand up to Penn). Some of the minor players (the murdered daughter's BF and his slatternly mother in particular) do fine work.
If you haven't read the book, the film is a reasonable if uneven entertainment, but it's not quite the tragedy it should be. The reviews so far have been excellent, which is surprising.
I think the critics are going all out for Eastwood as they think this will be his last real hurrah. And it's certainly better than his last 3-4 films, but that's largely due to the quality of the original material.
Looking at "Mystic" screenwriter Brian Helgeland's work post "L.A. Confidential" ("The Postman," "Conspiracy Theory," "Blood Work," "A Knight's Tale," "The Order"), I'm convinced that the excellent quality of "Confidential" is chiefly the result of the efforts of director and co-writer Curtis Hanson.
In fact, Hanson would have been a far better choice to direct "Mystic" than Eastwood (the mediocre "8 Mile" notwithstanding).
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