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Blu-ray Review HTF Blu-ray Review: MYSTIC RIVER

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Michael Reuben, Jan 31, 2010.

  1. Michael Reuben

    Michael Reuben Studio Mogul

    Feb 12, 1998
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    Mystic River (Blu-ray)

    Studio: Warner
    Rated: R
    Film Length: 138 minutes
    Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
    HD Encoding: 1080p
    HD Codec: VC-1
    Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1; French, German,* Italian,* Hungarian* DD 5.1; Spanish (Castilian 5.1 and Latin 2.0)
    Subtitles: English SDH; French; Spanish (Castilian and Latin); Italian;* Italian SDH;* Danish;* Finnish;* Hungarian;* Norwegian;* Portugese;* Romanian;* Swedish;* Russian;* Hebrew*
    MSRP: $28.99
    Disc Format: 1 50GB
    Package: Keepcase
    Theatrical Release Date: Oct. 8, 2003
    Blu-ray Release Date: Feb. 2, 2010

    *Though not listed on the Blu-ray case, these audio and subtitle options are included on the disc.


    Mystic River, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel, continues to divide viewers, as evidenced by its inclusion on Premiere’s catty list of the “20 Most Overrated Films of All Time”. For its fans, it’s a Greek tragedy set in contemporary South Boston, where destiny can’t be outrun and the fates look down impassively as debts are settled and tears are shed. For its detractors, it’s an overwritten murder mystery resting on coincidence, questionable motivation and method overacting. (The film won Oscars for Sean Penn and Tim Robbins.)

    Whichever camp you’re in, there’s no question that Mystic River is exactly the film that Eastwood set out to make, because he’s said so on numerous occasions. If one accepts (and it would be foolish to dispute) that Eastwood is one of the most accomplished filmmakers working today, then at least for that reason alone, attention must be paid.

    The Feature:

    Disclaimer: Some elements of this discussion may be considered spoilers.

    “The last time I saw Dave Boyle? That was twenty-five years ago going up this street in the back of that car.” – Jimmy Markum

    It’s South Boston in the 1970s. Three kids are playing hockey in the street. The most adventurous, Jimmy, writes his name in freshly poured concrete. He’s followed by Sean, then Dave, who hasn’t finished his name when they’re interrupted by a man claiming to be a cop. The man puts Dave in the back of his car and drives him away with another man. But they’re not cops; they’re pedophiles. They imprison Dave and abuse him for four days. He manages to escape and get home, but, in the words of a neighbor, he’s “damaged goods”.

    Twenty-five years later, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) lives in the same neighborhood. He’s married to Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a young son whom he accompanies to and from school every day. It’s a sign of Eastwood’s masterful direction that he unobtrusively reveals the location of the school during the course of the film – just a few minutes from the Boyle home, within a safe and easy walking distance. At night Dave tells his son strange bedtime stories about a boy who escaped from wolves.

    Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) has joined the Massachusetts State Police, but his personal life is no more settled than Dave Boyle’s. His wife has left him while pregnant with their first child. She regularly telephones him but says nothing before hanging up. Sean’s closest relationship is with his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne).

    Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) is married to his second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), who is Celeste Boyle’s cousin, and they have two young daughters. Jimmy also has a nineteen-year-old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), from a first marriage to a wife who died while Jimmy was in prison for armed robbery. Katie works part-time in the neighborhood market Jimmy owns. She has a secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry), whom Jimmy despises for reasons he won’t talk about.

    “Hey, Jimmy. God said you owed another marker. Came to collect.” – Sean Devine

    On a Saturday morning, a 911 call leads to the discovery of a young girl’s body. Because the location falls under state jurisdiction, the state police are called. And so it comes to pass that fate charges Sean Devine with the grim task of informing his former childhood friend, Jimmy Markum, that his daughter Katie has been shot and beaten to death.

    A critical scene in Mystic River occurs shortly after the revelation of Katie Markum’s murder. Its ramifications are essential to everything that follows. Jimmy is sitting with his wife in a cafeteria at the morgue, having just formally identified his daughter’s body. He’s shattered and grief-stricken, but still boiling with a rage so intense that six cops had to hold him down at the crime scene. Across from him sits Sean, with whom Jimmy hasn’t been close in years, probably since the day they wrote their names in concrete. Sean asks Jimmy to tell him whatever he can remember about the day preceding Katie’s death. But Jimmy has other things on his mind:

    Jimmy: Did you ever think about how just one little choice could change your whole life? I read Hitler’s mother wanted to abort him. At the last minute she changed her mind. See what I mean?

    Sean: What do you mean, Jimmy?

    Jimmy: What if you or I had gotten into that car instead of Dave Boyle?

    Sean: You’re losing me here, Jimmy.

    Jimmy: If I had gotten into that car that day, my life would have been a different thing. My first wife, Marita, Katie’s mother, she was a beautiful woman – regal, as a lot of Latin women are. And she knew it. You had to have balls just to go near her. And I did. Eighteen years old, the two of us. She was carrying Katie.

    Now, here’s the thing, Sean. If I’d have gotten in the car that day, I’d have been a basket case. I never would have had the juice to go near her. And Katie never would have been born. And she never would have been murdered. You know?

    And there you have it: Even before he has any idea whose hand actually committed the crime, Jimmy Markum is trying to decipher the celestial balance book linking his childhood sin to his daughter’s killing. (It’s the same connection that Sean Devine grasped instinctively as he stood over Katie’s body with his partner.) Jimmy is a man who has spent the past twenty-five years looking over his shoulder, waiting for a tap that he knew was coming, dreading the reckoning he’s sure was due for the day when he started writing in concrete and Dave Boyle was taken away by monsters. He just never expected the price to be so high, or to be exacted from the daughter he loved best.

    Later, sitting on his front porch, Jimmy confesses to his daughter’s spirit: “I know in my soul I contributed to your death. But I don’t know how.” Jimmy will try to answer that question, but, like King Oedipus demanding explanations from prophets and oracles, the answers will bring him neither comfort nor relief. They will only seal his destruction. (And lest anyone think I’m pushing it, the notion of Jimmy as a “king” is not fanciful; it’s explicitly stated in the film.)

    “She reminded me of a dream I had. A dream of youth. I don’t remember having one.” – Dave Boyle

    The remainder of Mystic River follows two investigations into Katie Markum’s murder. One is conducted by Whitey Powers and Sean, and it takes some unusual turns, including an interesting interview with a liquor store owner named Loonie, played by an uncredited Eli Wallach, reuniting with Eastwood for the first time since The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The second investigation is local and unofficial, and it’s led by the Savage brothers, neighborhood hoodlums who were Jimmy’s criminal cohorts before he went straight.

    Both investigations quickly focus on Dave Boyle, whose wife, Celeste, is becoming increasingly concerned about his erratic behavior. The night of Katie Markum’s death, Dave came home late, injured and covered in blood. To make matters worse, Dave’s explanation of his whereabouts and his injuries keeps changing. (As Tim Robbins notes in the commentary, Dave lies habitually about everything, because the one time he told the truth was when, as a kid, he told the phony cop where he lived – and got put in the back of that car.) Even as Sean and Whitey are following the evidence in unexpected directions, the local investigation keeps coming back to Dave. Everything in Mystic River always comes back to those three names written in concrete.

    “Sometimes I think – I think all of us got into that car, and all this is just a dream.” – Sean Devine

    It’s not surprising that viewers who approach Mystic River with a mind set formed by Law and Order find the film unsatisfying. Although Katie Markum’s murder is solved, we are never given the definitive account that one expects from a police procedural. Indeed, the explanation that Sean ultimately provides to Jimmy differs substantially from the one that is revealed to the audience in a tense scene ending with Sean and Whitey arriving to make an arrest. Such are the uncertainties and rough edges of the human world and its flawed institutions. But fate keeps neater books, and the question that hangs over the end of the film is where the entries stand.

    Jimmy, having meted out his own form of justice, is now a mere shell, but his wife Annabeth, steps in and explains why it’s essential and right that he become the man (or mobster) that he was always meant to be, for her sake and that of her children. The scene, which is quietly chilling, has inspired comparisons to Lady MacBeth – and we all know how well things turned out for the MacBeths.

    The conclusion of Mystic River leaves the audience with a question. As Sean Devine and Jimmy Markum, former friends, now cop and criminal, face each other in silent acknowledgment across a parade through South Boston, what lies before them? Is the reckoning over? Is there further business between them? Does Sean, too, have an outstanding “marker” (because, after all, he didn’t get in the car either)? What, if anything, does Sean owe to Dave Boyle? The answer is as mysterious as the dark river over which the camera glides in the film’s final shot – the same river in which Jimmy Markum thought he could wash clean the sins of a past that is never really past.


    Warner’s Blu-ray accurately captures Mystic River’s muted color palette, with its washed-out browns and blues. Much of the film takes place in shadow, whether at night or in dimly lit interiors, and it’s essential that black levels be sufficiently reliable to separate what should be visible from what should remain hidden. This transfer lives up to the challenge, and the shadow detail within the blacks is very good. In the rare scene of brightness and color, such as the first communion sequence and the parade near the end, it becomes obvious that the transfer is perfectly capable of showing vivid hues and bright whites when there are any to reveal. But that’s not the world of Mystic River.


    Unusual for a Warner Blu-ray, the soundtrack is offered in DTS-HD MA, and it’s atmospheric and effective. Don’t let the lack of bombastic surround effects fool you; this soundtrack has surprises. When Dave flashes back to his childhood trauma, the soundtrack takes you there. When Sean brings Jimmy important news near the film’s end, his account is punctuated by the sound of tires squealing; is it distant traffic, or the impact on Jimmy of what Sean is telling him? Small ambient noises appropriate to each environment are evident throughout the soundtrack. Hovering above it all is the elegiac score composed by Eastwood.

    Special Features:

    All of the special features have been ported from the 2004 deluxe DVD edition. Not included is the separate CD containing Eastwood’s score that was the third disc in the 2004 set.

    Commentary by Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon. Bacon and Robbins chat like old pals and occasionally fall into the trap of sitting silently watching the film. But they offer revealing anecdotes about the experience of shooting the film and, as actors who have both directed, their observations on Eastwood’s working methods are especially worthwhile. It turns out that, contrary to Eastwood’s frequent claim that he doesn’t really do anything as a director, he is entirely capable of walking onto a set and turning off one of his DP’s lights, because he thinks the shot will look better without it. And anyone who’s ever wondered just how Eastwood manages to make films so quickly and inexpensively should count the many occasions noted by Bacon and Rollins when something unplanned or unexpected occurred – something that on any other set would have prompted stopping, resetting and starting the take over – whereas Eastwood, tightly focused on what the story needed and supremely confident in the strength of his story and his actors, knew that he could use it and, preferring the spontaneity, decided to move on.

    Mystic River: Beneath the Surface (SD; enhanced for 16:9) (22:52). Contrary to the notation on the Blu-ray case, this featurette does not depict author Dennis Lehane “Tour[ing] the Boston Neighborhood Setting of His Novel”. It’s a series of interviews with Eastwood, Lehane, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and the principal cast members on the making of the film. Although there’s a strong “press kit” air to the documentary, the interviews are still interesting.

    Bravo TV Special: Mystic River: From Page to Screen (SD; 1:85, centered in 16:9 frame) (11:32). Much of the material is duplicated from Beneath the Surface, but it’s still worth watching, because even when the same interview excerpts are used, they frequently contain additional material.

    The Charlie Rose Show Interviews: Clint Eastwood, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon (SD; 4:3 centered in 16:9 frame) (1:51:23). All three interviews are from 2003, and they’re not limited to Mystic River. Rose talks to each interviewee about his entire career, and if you know Rose’s interview style, then you have a pretty good idea of what you’re going to get. As Rose’s interviews go, however, these are some of the better ones.

    Trailers (HD). The teaser trailer is narrated by Eastwood and contains only aerial location footage. It’s one of the most eerie and suggestive trailers in recent memory. The theatrical trailer is more conventional, but still effective.

    Disc Menu:

    Since my last review of a Warner Blu-ray was critical of its menu design, I feel obliged to point out that Mystic River is the rare Warner title that goes from the company logo to a main menu. Also, the pop-up menu available during playback has a “main menu” option, another rarity for a Warner disc. Still, the disc is not encoded with BD-Java; it can be stopped and resume play from the stopped position.

    Maybe the next time Warner decides to encode a disc with BD-Java, the disc’s producers will look at the menu design for Mystic River. It’s basic, elegant and all that’s needed.

    In Conclusion:

    Though it’s just over six years old, Mystic River already feels much older. Its detractors would probably say that’s because the film was dated and creaky from the outset, but for me it’s the quality of a classic drama, simply and flawlessly told. Eastwood said at the time that he wanted to make Mystic River, because no one was making films like it anymore. Then he set the bar so high that it may be a long time before anyone tries again. Warner has given the film a superb treatment on Blu-ray.

    Equipment used for this review:

    Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
    Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
    Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
    Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
    Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
    Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
    SVS SB12-Plus sub
  2. Southpaw

    Southpaw Supporting Actor

    Sep 2, 2006
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    Yeah, I agree. I rewatched my special edition DVD a few months ago (before a BD release was announced) and I think it should go on a top 20 underrated films of all time list. It's done with such precision. And the acting in it is so superb. I'll eventually pick this one up Blu. Great review!

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