Mystic River (2003): One of Eastwood’s Best and Grimmest Films, Starring Sean Penn and Tim Robbins in Oscar Winning Performances

Clint Eastwood says that he knew from his very first reading of Dennis Lehanes best-selling novel Mystic river that he wanted to bring the tragic saga to the big screen.  “I read the book and optioned it immediately,” the mega-star-director (who doesn’t appear in his new film) recalls. “It’s a riveting story with enormous potential as a film.   All the characters are complex, interesting, and well-defined.”

Eastwood, who won the Oscar Awards for Best Director and Best Picture for his landmark Western, Unforgiven, brings the same classic, spare, and candid approach to Mystic River as he did to that 1992 Western and all other films.

Along with the more independently-oriented Robert Altman (The Player, Gosford Park), Eastwood, 73, is one of the most veteran and respected filmmakers working in Hollywood today.

Structured as a contemporary Greek tragedy, Mystic River explores the interwoven history of three men, the terrible events that tainted their childhood and shaped their futures, and the irrevocable choices they are ultimately forced to make.

Childhood chums Jimmy, Dave and Sean grew up and played on the same working class neighborhood streets of South Boston.  But when a shocking event (that can not be revealed here since the narrative unfolds as a mystery) befell one of them, the boys stopped spending time together and eventually grow apart.  As mature men, each keeps his distance as if the others were living reminders of that devastating childhood trauma.  But while their lives may have led them in different directions, they are all turning away from the same painful place that continues to haunt them.

“Murder mysteries are usually only about solving the crime,” notes Eastwood, “but in this case, the story shows how beyond the murder the participants’ existence, including their wives and family lives, has been altered by the crime.”  Like Unforgiven, Mystic River represents another meditation on the prevalence of violence in ordinary American lives.  Says Eastwood: “In this film, the viewers get to see the impact one violent act has had many years after the fact.  It’s really a tragic circle–all three men have unresolved issues in their lives.  They have all been traumatized by the past.  They have all become damaged goods.”

Having starred in numerous films himself, Eastwood knew that they key to the film’s emotional impact would be its realism, the fact that the story revolves around ordinary people who are far from being heroic: “This film is about real people trying to come to terms with their own personal demons, struggling with problems that bring an alarming momentum to the mix.”

When Eastwood began considering what writer could best bring Lehane’s haunting novel to the screen, Brian Helgeland immediately came to mind.  Helgeland, who won a writing Oscar for the 1997 L.A. Confidential, to which Mystic River bears some resemblance, really liked the book.  After conferring with Helgeland briefly, Eastwood said, “Well, why don’t you just dig in?”  Surprised at the quick offer, Helgeland ripped right into it, completing the script’s first draft in two weeks.  Recalls Eastwood: “I read his scenario and felt that it was a terrific interpretation of a complex book, filled with so much discussion and detail.

Casting turned out to be a most pleasant process. for Eastwood, whose decisions reflected his sense of purpose and desire for quality, without making any compromise.  “I sent the script to Sean Penn and he loved it right away,” Eastwood recounts.  “Then Tim Robbins called, and as the word got out, other actors, like Kevin Bacon, began calling me too.”

Women in the film?

Eastwood says that “Marcia Gay Harden (who won an Oscar for playing the tormented wife of the painter Pollock) and Laura Linney (an Oscar nominee for You Can Count on Me) are both terrific actresses with whom I had previously worked.”  In the end, Eastwood the director (who’s also credited as producer) was able to assemble quickly–by Hollywood standards–a stellar cast.

The cast had no doubts that they were in extremely capable hands.  “All of us had the sense that Clint’s storytelling would give the film a clear humility and great resonance,” says Penn, who himself has directed a number of somber films about tormented men, two of which (The Crossing Guard and The Pledge, starring Jack Nicholson).  “Our readings were done in order to make ourselves as familiar as possible with the material.  In that way, whatever had to do with nuances and character choices became just a shorthand exchange with Clint, and we wouldn’t have to refer back to the script.  As an actor, it becomes a cleaner, more decisive process because you know with each take that you can give it everything you have.”

Actor Tim Robbins (who has directed Sean Penn in the Oscar-nominated Dead Man Walking) concurs: “The key ingredient in this film is Clint Eastwood.  Clint is a true artist in every respect.  Despite his years of being at the top of his game and the legendary movies he has made, he always made us feel comfortable and valued on the set, treating us as collaborators and equals.  We never got the feeling that he believed in his legend or expected us to honor it, although we did.”

For all involved the shoot was a rewarding experience. Robbins recalls that “there was never any kind of pettiness on the set, no screaming or stupid emotional displays from anybody.  It was an extremely professional and adult environment.  There is nothing condescending about Eastwood, the director or man, and it invigorates you.  It makes you feel like you did when you made your very first film.”

Introducing Mystic River at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where the film received its world premiere, Eastwood said humbly: “This was a very pleasant experience because the actors all resonated so well together.  This is as good as I can be as filmmaker.”  Critics seem to agree for Mystic River is certainly the best-reviewed film in Eastwood’s long and successful career.

Acting Oscars

In a rare happenstance, both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won the acting Oscars in their respective categories, Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Robbins deserves a special mention as he represents the heart of this grim tale, a strange, enigmatic man who begins as a murder suspect.  Robbins, a tall actor with childish face, is well cast, working against his physical attributes to portray a man who has suppressed his emotions and sort of shrank his size, due to permanent psychic damage and abuse during his childhood.

For his performance, Robbins won an Oscar, Golden Globe and a BFCA Award.