On May 23, 2003, the director and actor, at the height of his career, participated in competition in Cannes for the third time
On May 23, 2003, Clint Eastwood, at the peak of his career after so many masterpieces including “Unforgiven” (four Oscars in 1991), participated in competition for the third time at the Cannes Film Festival (after “The Pale Knight /Pale Rider” in 1985 and “White Hunter, Black Heart” in 1990; he will return, for the last time today with “Changeling”, in 2008) with his “Mystic River”, adaptation of the homonymous neo-noir novel by Dennis Lehane (initially known by us as “Death does not forget”). On paper, he was the horse to beat: but he went home empty-handed. The jury presided over by Patrice Chreau awarded the top prizes (best film and best direction) to Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and awarded the screenplay to “Les Invasions barbares” by Denys Arcand; while the recognition for the best male interpretation and ex aequo to Muzaffer zdemir and Mehmet Emin Toprak for “Uzak” by Nuri Bilge Ceylan, also leaving Sean Penn and Tim Robbins empty-handed who until shortly before the verdict were given as favorites. The two magnificent actors (after the Italian public was also able to enjoy their performances: the film was released on 24 October of that year) made up for it amply during the night of the Oscars (respectively for best protagonist and best supporting protagonist: only awards out of six nominations, but still a “combo” that in the entire history of the Academy Awards had occurred before only three other times). The inkling of injustice remained for a long time like a shadow both on the Festival and on a film that seemed scarred right from its genesis: Warner Bros., Eastwood’s usual producer, did not in fact believe in the project and left the director practically only to take care of the realization with his Malpaso factory.
The events of “Mystic River” (the title refers to the river that runs through the city) open in Boston in 1975, where the childhood of inseparable friends Sean (Connor Paolo), Jimmy (Jason Kelly) and Dave (Cameron Bowen) is irreparably corrupted when the latter, lured by what he the boys believe to be a policeman who is scolding them for a stunt, disappears for four long days at the end of which no one but him will really be aware of what has happened to him very violently. Twenty-five years later, the relationships of the three fortuitously resume, when they find themselves brought together by a new painful event: Jimmy’s (Sean Penn, as an adult) daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found brutally murdered and Sean (Kevin Bacon, as an adult), joined by Sergeant Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), the Massachusetts State Police officer in charge of the investigation. The murder of Katie, who was planning an escape to Las Vegas with her boyfriend Brendan (Tom Guiry), deeply disliked by Jimmy, does not seem to have a motive, although the first mild suspicions focus on her boyfriend; but things get complicated immediately. Because during the evening of the crime, Dave (Tim Robbins, as an adult), who lives in the same area as Jimmy, returned home bleeding from one hand and belly and told his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) that he got the wounds during a scuffle with a robber he believes he killed. While Brendan, subjected to a lie detector test, is exonerated almost immediately, Celeste searches without finding newspaper articles that somehow confirm the version of events provided by Dave; and she begins to believe that her husband is responsible for the murder of Jimmy’s daughter. The hypothesis also seems to be gaining ground due to the discrepant versions that Dave comes up with with Jimmy and Sean: to the first he says he injured himself at work, while to the second he says he accidentally put his hand in the garbage disposal. And, meanwhile, it turns out that the shot with which Katie was finished comes from a gun with which Brendan’s father, Ray Harris, Jimmy’s old underworld acquaintance, carried out a robbery years ago. Sean’s suspicions then return to focus on Brendan, but Sergeant Powers begins to feel convinced of Dave’s guilt, attributing it to the psychological trauma of sexual abuse suffered as a child. The road to the truth will prove to be much more painful and terrible. Especially for Jimmy and Dave.
Impossible to proceed further in the narrative of a plot in which blood calls for blood while the revenge mechanisms, right or wrong (unfortunately this second option to prevail) are relentlessly triggered: and the very solid dramaturgical structure and the extraordinary performances of the cast would be enough to archive “Mystic River” as a masterpiece of “classic” cinema. But Eastwood and his screenwriter Brian Helgeland are not satisfied: they immediately overshadow the more superficial and traditional nature of Lehane’s beautiful novel (the detection and the need to isolate with certainty the crux of the matter) to sink caustically into a sort of exemplary timeless tragedy (with inevitably Shakespearean echoes: see the bewilderment of Annabeth [Laura Linney], Jimmy’s wife, Lady Macbeth in the sixteenth, during the final parade of Columbus Day, full of symbolic echoes) where to go on stage once again (among ghosts of the past, impossible removals of pain, doubts that corrode morals up to the loss of every human empathy and equally transversal interpretations of the sense of justice and legitimacy) that America – and that way of living the same being American – of which the Eastwood director has never stopped probing the darkest and most desperate side. A tragedy that takes place in a lateral space of a city that has become a symbol of American excellence, Boston, but from which any light of grandeur, any possibility of perfection is expunged. With “Mystic River”, Eastwood arrives at one of his most extraordinary results also or precisely for the progressive (and here perhaps definitive) demolition of his own and unfortunately widespread erroneous perception of, to put it euphemistically, “conservative”. By renouncing to stage himself as an actor (an absence that radicalises the discourse, also to avoid the residuality of the misunderstanding linked to the “values” previously embodied by his figure) and becoming an uncomfortable cantor of a point of view which is instead totally nihilistic in its to be so rigorously prospective and pessimistic about the conscience of a nation. With an updated reflection (and painfully mediated by the passage of time in history) on the nature of violence which is inevitably corollary (and even more desperate) to that of “Unforgiven”: ferocity, abuse, violation are fundamental and necessary elements, but above all congenital and devoid of any “ideological” excuse, on which the very identity of the so-called “Land of the Free” is built. Where everything is permeated with suffering but, at times, also with a very dark sarcasm. In this regard, see the moment in which Dave/Robbins retheorises the figure of the “revenant” on himself (a cornerstone of Eastwoodian poetics, which found its more metaphysical meaning precisely in the aforementioned “The Pale Rider”) while on a screen images of “Vampires” by John Carpenter flow on television: Dave is nothing more than an undead, survived but destined to capitulate precisely because of his condition of fragility and inadequacy in a world of which he is only a biological part. With the result of forcing the viewer to an awareness that has nothing cathartic in his lacerating disenchantment.
May 25, 2023 (change May 25, 2023 | 11:07)
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