15/10/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River (2003)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon


“The time bomb buried in the psyches of young boys sexually abused by men of the cloth explodes in Mystic River, a gutsy expose of a deep and far reaching problem ignored by the Catholic Church for too many years.”

Clint Eastwood steps out of the picture as a real hero of society with his production of Mystic River, brave beyond his ‘make my day’ film image.Mystic River makes it abundantly clear that sexual abuse by a priest is not comparable to any pain a child suffers at the hands of an ordinary adult. It’s personal, familial and societal, implanting a boy with a resounding world of hurt and filling his community with confounding guilt. Eastwood’s willingness to tell it like it is and show the power of sexual abuse laced with religious overtones to persist throughout a lifetime is more than an act of bravery. It’s a gift of sight. Mystic River translates a complex emotional injury into terms that everyone can fully comprehend. Sexual abuse by a man carrying religious authority acts as thief and killer of a child’s soul. Even the friends of a child who’s been abused, the ones who don’t directly experience the abuse but simply know that they could have, so easily, been victims suffer a crisis of trust that will affect their actions and personal destinies.

Three boys of about ten years old playing stick hockey in the side streets of an Irish Boston suburb lose their ball down a sewer drain. Left without a game to play, one suggests they amuse themselves by taking a parked car and driving it around the block. Another says his mom would kill him if he did anything like that. The third hangs back, hankering for a little excitement but not ready to break the law. Finally, the first gets a bright idea. They can carve their names in a block of freshly poured concrete sidewalk. He goes first, aggressively printing his name, “Jimmy”, with the end of a stick. The second goes along, scrawling “Sean” in the wet cement. And then, rising to a jibe from Jimmy, the reluctant third one takes the stick. Just as he finishes the second letter of his name, “Da..”, a car pulls up and a large burly man acting like a cop steps out in a big overcoat and, in old fashioned terms, puts the fear of God in the boys for destroying public property.

All well and good. A familiar scene of getting caught etched in the memory of many adults from childhood. But then the cop steps forward, a bit out of character, zooming in on the boy who went last when he finds out that he doesn’t have parents who might be watching from an overlooking apartment. He physically forces him into the backseat of his car. And then it gets worse. It’s not the false badge flashing nor the hand cuffs hanging from the belt, but the ring with the insignia of the priesthood on the hand of his pal waiting in the car that sends chills up our spines. The pal, a man in black with the telltale white collar casually drapes his right hand with the ring over the back of his seat, turning back to get a good look at Dave. Later, a large gold cross swings loose around his neck as he comes after Dave cringing on a mattress in a bleak cellar where he is being held by these two men against his will.

Dave manages to escape four days later, running through the woods like a wild, hunted animal. As he returns home, a crowd gathers to watch and someone whispers ‘looks like damaged goods to me’. Everyone knows what that means. His shamefaced mother huddles him into the house and can be seen berating him in an upstairs window. Not just Dave but his friends, Jimmy and Sean, will bear the blame for this abduction as if it were them, not the priest who perpetrated the crime. There is a specter of evil that comes in human form that cannot be captured and put behind bars. It lives in the shadows of hubris and rises up years later to take a deadly toll. Wanton assault on a child’s innocence by adults holding not just lawful but sacred authority is a game with far reaching consequences.

The three boys drift apart, grow up into a mobster, a cop and an unemployed ballplayer. Their friendship becomes a thing of the past until a young girl is murdered in their old neighborhood, forcing them to cross paths and showing exactly how the ghosts from a childhood incident can still dictate the critical choices in their lives. Dave (Tim Robbins) now has a young son, about the same age he was when he was abducted. He’s a dear but broken man, tormented by demons and married to a frightened, stupid woman (Marsha Gay Harden) who may love him but has no ability to think for herself. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has aligned himself with the law, becoming a homicide detective on the Boston police force. Married but estranged from his wife, he cannot say what he wants nor apologize for what distances him from her pregnancy, afraid to take on the responsibility of being a father. Jimmy (Sean Penn) solidified his penchant for rebellion into life of crime as a smalltime mob boss after a couple years in jail. He’s become a family man with a loyal but jealously possessive wife (Laura Linney) and three daughters, the oldest a blossoming nineteen-year-old daughter from an earlier teenage marriage. She’s the girl who’s been murdered.

Jimmy’s mind meets the disaster with rage, so wracked with grief and guilt that he can believe – against evidence – that Dave still holds his fate against him for that day so long ago. Dave still reels with shame about his hatred for fathers who abuse boys and cannot speak in his own defense. At first, Jimmy seeks Dave out as a confidant for his own guilt but then he turns on him as if Dave’s death offers salvation. He kills him with self-righteous clarity, raging against injustices he cannot prevent and raging justifiably against the forces of evil that have invaded him. Jimmy’s friends as well as his wife are persuaded by his hatred of an enemy they cannot find, admiring of his wild impatience with the law. Any enemy will do. Of course, Jimmy’s actions make him exactly what he so much wants to eliminate — an irrational force of violence aligned with religion against the exploitation of the innocent. And, once again, Jimmy slips away from the reach of the law, evading the police but not Sean. And Sean, once again, gets caught bearing witness to an injustice he cannot make right, cannot understand.

Sadly, each of the three wives in Mystic River is deeply enmeshed in her husband’s misery, playing roles that close rather than open doors. Dave’s wife is in over her head when he comes home covered in blood with a story that he may have killed a mugger who attacked him on the way to his car. She cannot contain her anxiety about what really happened and, when Dave cannot speak clearly in his own defense, she makes a terrible choice to seek solace from Jimmy. Jimmy’s wife is a woman envious of her step-daughter’s tag on her dad’s heart. So, when Jimmy is at his darkest moment, realizing the power of guilt to distort his good sense, she assuages him with a speech of self-righteous rhetoric that barely covers her glee at finding herself at the center of his attention. However, it’s Sean’s wife that clearly reveals the wives of such men to be mirrors of their own trap. She appears as a woman without identity on the other end of a phone, separated from Sean and pregnant. She dials but she doesn’t speak, making random calls to him that bear no message. She’s a reflection, waiting for him to speak. He must break the silence if it’s to be broken. It is only he who can open the door, make an attempt to escape the legacy of ‘what if’ – what if it had been him who had been abducted that day. Is he up to the role of father?

Mystic River is not a new story, it’s an old one. Children being brought up in a simple system of right and wrong where they are continually complying with and breaking rules, finding their way toward being an adult as they make their choices and receive punishment or praise. However, somewhere behind the simple system lies the ‘big system’, the one that determines whether they’re a worthy human being in the eyes of God. And somewhere along the line, a child decides about himself and begins to make choices that fit his decision of worthiness. In Mystic River, two boys get to make that decision – one doesn’t. For the two who do, one goes with the law and one goes against. The one who lost that critical decision lives life with a shredded soul guided by hands that shake and a mind that can’t remember. That child, haunted by nightmares, grows up never sure whether he’s a real human being at all, much less a worthy one. He’s eaten up by a wolfish anxiety that steals his choice, his intelligence and his spirit – and makes him a victim all over again.

At the end of Mystic River, Jimmy and Sean attend a community parade in the old neighborhood with their families. For a brief moment, they catch one another’s eye across the street. Silence hangs heavy between them like it did on that day so long ago. They’re not friends but a familiar feeling passes between them. They’re again implicated witnesses, bonded beneath the skin by a certain knowing. The son of the third man – the missing one – rides in the parade. One day, that kid will need the truth. Will he get it? Mystic River gives some idea of the complexity of that truth, some picture of just how many men and women are truly responsible for Dave’s death. And Jimmy’s daughter?

This is a story with a moral. When a boy’s soul is not protected from evil, he walks a dark path of perpetual doubt about whether he qualifies as a real human being.

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28/03/03 Film Essay # , , , ,

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)

Personal Velocity: Three Portraits (2002)
Director: Rebecca Miller
Writer: Rebecca Miller
Stars: Kyra Sedgwick, Parker Posey, Fairuza Balk


“Fate may deal girls a hard hand at birth, endowing them with a sexual allure that will bring out the best and the worst in their fathers, husbands and the odd assortment of boys and men to come across their path. However, Personal Velocity turns fate around, spot lighting the nature of a woman’s nature as a powerful card of her own design not to be underestimated when it’s in play.”

Sexuality determined Mary Lou’s path from the time she was born. She’s the baby in the ‘Blue Jeans’ song that drives men wild. “She can’t help it”; she just turns ’em on. She’s beautiful and powerful, destined to light a man’s fire and rouse his rage because she represents what he can’t have – control. Oh, not just control of her. Not even just control of her body or her feelings. She reminds him that he can’t have control period and, for that, he hates her. Mary Lou’s husband loves and hates her. He’s wild about her and, sometimes, he’s so wild that he hits her. Somehow, he thought if he had her all to himself, he would feel – and stay – on top of the world. But instead, she – and it is her all the way – lets him down. He can fall low down on a simple word from her, reduced to what he is without the illusion of dominance – just a man, not a god nor superman. Personal Velocity captures the moment when he falls, she shatters and life smatters, taking three kids along for the ride. It’s not pretty but the resilience of Mary Lou is awesome and, somehow, she lands on her feet.

For Gretchen, it was different. She was beautiful from birth but it was the brains inside her beauty that drove her powerful, famous lawyer father wild. He didn’t lift a hand against her; he simply withheld the loving hand of approval. She grew up shining back his light. Her frail mother, loveliness incarnate, faded as time passed and died at an early age after her husband humiliated her with an affair with his young legal associate. Oedipus on his head; the father kills the mother to have the daughter. The daughter picks a man far from her father’s kingdom, hoping to elude her mother’s fate. But, alas, Gretchen leapfrogs through corporate America, becoming so successful that an unexpected lust strikes her heart and lights up other men – yep, you guessed it, men just like dear old dad. As sweet and accepting as her husband is, she can no longer see herself with him forever. His sweetness reeks of loss, too close to the failure of her mother to keep her father’s devotion and too close to the fear of following her mother’s footsteps to an early death. Gretchen surprises herself and her father with her success, upsetting her rebellion against him and sending her on a road less traveled pleasing herself.

Paula is a runaway girl, having left a mom who married yet another abusive man once she divorced Paula’s abusive father. On the street, homeless in New York City, she is befriended by a large Haitian man who gives her one of those pears from the Partridge tree, loving her beyond her body to her soul. She radiates to his warmth, curling white inside black until she’s pregnant. Then she bolts; her odyssey toward emotional freedom deepens. She is drawn completely to the light, captivated by easy conversation with a blonde Norwegian who picks her up in a bar. Laughing, walking and talking like teens on an early Bob Dylan album cover, the Norwegian gets hit by a car that whips only him off the sidewalk to his death. Paula bolts again, driving all night to see a mother who doesn’t exist. She needs a sign, something to tell her what direction she’s going. As with the other young women, parental guidance is nowhere in sight while fate deals cards too fast.

The bizarre accident of the Norwegian’s death has played in the background on tv and radio in the previous two episodes with Mary Lou and Gretchen, obviously suggesting each young woman walks close to death and, not so obviously, suggesting the ante of the game is raised as she makes choices about the man she walks with. Paula must decipher her true path by an occurrence of random events that change in size and shape as quickly as if she were Alice in Wonderland. All three women feel lost, racing along a dangerous road of conflicting, switch back emotions. Their sexuality acts as a beacon of light in the dark, leading them toward an unknown destination being made up as they go along. When Paula calls her Haitian lover to ask for help, she breaks through the isolation each young woman suffers. When she gets an answer, one from him and one from deep inside her psyche where inner and outer worlds merge, she skips across the road to the other side.

The unique sexual nature of each one of the women featured in Personal Velocity drives her story. Mary Lou who is not terribly bright nor very clever has little but her exceptional sexuality going for her. And while she may have enjoyed having the upper hand with boys during high school, she falls prey to a husband who beats her to keep her down. When she can’t stand seeing her three children cowering in pain any longer, she gathers up the last shreds of her once reliable spirit and leaves him. Gretchen, by contrast, has brains, beauty and class going for her. But she tucks her sexuality under a cloak of poor self-esteem, marrying a man as far down the ladder from her powerful father as she can. When success as a book editor catapults her to fame and fortune, she finds herself highly sexualized and struggling with fidelity. She loves the sweet man she married but she’s drawn like a moth to flame to the fascinating men that were previously out of her league. Gretchen — her father’s daughter after all. And then there’s Paula, the drop out beauty with the soul of a saint who is rescued off the streets of New York by a black Haitian. They live happily ever after in poor but secure circumstances until Paula discovers she’s pregnant. Somehow, this breaks the spell and she bar hops, meeting a fun white guy but barely escaping being hit by a car that jumps the sidewalk, kills the guy but miraculously leaves her standing, intact. Desperate, she heads for a home that doesn’t exist. Along the way she picks up a boy hitchhiker who has been severely beaten, possibly tortured. In her attempt to rescue this boy that has come as accidentally across her path as the Haitian who is her lover and the Norwegian taken from her side, she discovers a secret that puts a smile on her face.

To put the secret in big terms, Paula discovers the mysterious core of female sexuality — the energizing source of regeneration that lies within a woman’s body that may, sometimes, have to do with having babies but always has to do with giving birth to herself. The sexual awakening for all three women stories is unmistakably complex, leaving the viewer of Personal Velocitysitting in wonder before the beauty of a woman.

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