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Mystic River's Redeeming Qualities




Unlike many who write in about a Jonathan Rosenbaum review, I find that when I disagree with him, which is often enough, it's more likely to be because he's championed some offensive piece of Hollywood dreck like Maid in Manhattan than because he values the difficult pleasure of a Kiarostami flick. But in his review of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River ["Vengeance Is Theirs," October 24], he makes some of the mistakes people often unfairly accuse him of making.

He might have reflected that it's not the movie's fault that David Denby was moved by it to commit embarrassing prose, or that the critical reception of the film, little short of hagiolatrous, does not negate its real strengths, which merit far more than the shrug implicit in a "worth seeing" rating. Mystic River has problems, not least Eastwood's drippy new-age score, but a validation of conservative machismo isn't one of them, at least not unproblematically. Rosenbaum notes that "one might counter that Eastwood is perfectly aware of the monstrousness of [his movie's] conclusion," only to dismiss this possibility with "I don't much care." I'd be interested to know how this dismissal squares with his advocacy of films like L'Humanite and I Stand Alone, whose directors' relationship to the violence they show is at least as questionable as Eastwood's is here.

My take on the movie is that not only is Eastwood aware of this monstrousness, but so is the film itself. From where I sat, Annabeth's justification of the murder of Dave was chilling in its brutality, its social Darwinist inhumanity, and was meant to be so. Throughout the film Jimmy comes across as more complex than Rosenbaum will allow; his offhand comment about a pivotal character who can't speak--"that mute fucker" gives him the creeps--hardly endears him to the audience. That Sean Penn's "performance [as Jimmy is] so powerful it makes [Rosenbaum] sick," far from vindicating the character's murderous quest for revenge, only adds to the moral complexity of the scenes where Jimmy does come off as sympathetic--it doesn't reduce that complexity to one dimension.

Likewise, Rosenbaum's reading of Tim Robbins as Dave is overly simplistic. Dave is hardly played only as "pathetic and retarded." Indeed, someone watching the interrogation scene, where Dave outwits Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne's police detectives, is likely to be impressed, as I was, with the revelation that Dave is a deeply intelligent and thoughtful person, which offsets other characters' assumptions about him.

I suppose I read the final act differently than Rosenbaum does. As Kevin Bacon brings the hammer of his thumb down on Sean Penn, pretending to shoot him, it seems to me that anything but redemption is in store for Jimmy. If American critics interpret Mystic River as simply "fatalistic and deterministic," a celebration of revenge, we need hardly follow them, and Eastwood's intentions do matter, if they show up in the film. The film does, to be sure, risk such interpretations, and is perhaps more morally ambiguous than Rosenbaum would prefer. But to foreclose other readings and to downgrade a movie with so many qualities to recommend it (the acting is simply astonishing, something Rosenbaum acknowledges in passing) seems unworthy of a reviewer of Rosenbaum's stature and acumen.

Michael Robbins

S. Blackstone

Jonathan Rosenbaum replies:

My subject in all three cases was not the intentions of the filmmakers but the effect these films have on people, including me and other critics. Eastwood may well be condemning violence, but I'm bothered by how easy it is to misunderstand him.

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