Mystic River (2003)

Mystic_River_posterWhen you enter into the world of a film you often expect it to be perfect in your own minds-eye, following your own rationale to a logical conclusion. In that sense, Mystic River is invariably imperfect in how it ties up all its loose ends, but then again, what film really can bear that weight — and it’s all subjective anyhow. Instead, Clint Eastwood’s Boston-set drama builds off a story about three young boys and evolves into an engaging police procedural intertwining the lives and events of these three individuals. But it all starts with a game of street hockey.

After losing their ball down a gutter drain, the three lads sign their names in a slab of wet cement, only to be accosted by a formidable man who won’t take their small act of defiance. He yells at the most unnerved of the three to pile into the backstreet of his tinted car. The boy thinks he’s off to the police station, but these men have far more traumatic intentions for him. It’s three days before young David flees into the woods like a spooked animal disappearing into the fog.

It’s a harrowing entry point of reference, that only makes sense after flashing forward to the present. The three boys are grown up. Dave, still hounded by his past, is married and raising his young son. Although work is hard to come by, they’re eking by.After a stint in prison and the death of his first wife, Jimmy is remarried, running a local convenience store. Sean is the straight-arrow of the bunch and became a cop.

As is the case with youth and childhood friendships, the ties that bind us together are often severed with the passing of time as people grow up and drift apart. But those formative years never leave us and when these three men are subsequently thrown back together, their past resurfaces.

One evening when Jimmy is in the backroom of his shop his daughter from his first marriage, the vivacious Katie gives him a goodnight kiss, as she is about to go out with friends. That same night Dave spies her partying at the local watering hole, but before he goes home he gets into an altercation with a mugger — at least that’s what he tells his wife. Except the next morning, Sean is assigned to a local crime scene along with his colleague (Laurence Fishburne), and it looks to be a grisly ordeal.

From thence forward, the seeds of doubt begin to spring up in our minds. What did Dave really do? Who killed this girl full of life and exuberance? Jimmy wants to know those exact same answers, and he’s welling up with bitterness and discontent. Sean walks this fine line of doing his duty and treading lightly on this man he used to know well and now is practically a stranger. Meanwhile, Dave lives his apathetic little life, looking to obfuscate what happened that night with the help of his fearful wife.

But of course, when Jimmy catches wind of what Dave did, he puts two and two together and comes to his own convenient conclusions. He wants justice after all. Even when Sean and Whitey make crucial discoveries of their own, it’s too late to stop the wheels from turning. Jimmy’s mind is already made up.

To his credit, Brian Helgeland’s script adeptly keeps all its arcs afloat, crisscrossing in such a way that leads to more and more questions, because there’s ever a hint of ambiguity. Nothing is quite spelled out and that’s paying respect to the viewer. However, there are moments where Mystic River enters unbelievable or even illogical territory, near its conclusion. Still, that does not take away from its overall strengths as a magnetic character study and gripping procedural. Tim Robbins and Sean Penn especially give stellar turns, the first as a frightened and mentally distressed man, the other as a hardened ex-con with vigilante tendencies. The fact that each character is grounded by their families is a crucial piece of the storyline, tying them all together.

4/5 Stars

Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)

19491-searchingfor2Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc) seems like your average little boy with a bowl cut and an affinity for Legos and sports. However, soon his parents discover that he has a special gift for chess and his father (Joe Mantegna) especially wishes to cultivate his skills. He finds Josh a teacher named Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a former chess champion himself who looks to discipline the boy’s playing so he can be the next Bobby Fischer. He eggs Josh on with the promise of a grand master certificate once he earns enough points, and so Josh listens to his instruction. His dad enters him in tournaments that Josh wins easily and rapidly moves up the ranks, but as always happens the game is no longer fun and the father gets more intent on his son excelling on the highest stage. The trophies stack up, but Josh is missing a lot of school as well as his friends.

On the urging of Bruce, Josh is no longer allowed to play with the men in the park because they play undisciplined. Stepping back for a moment, there is the realization that this is a seven-year-old boy and yet this really happened, and it happens very often. Parents push their kids so much so because they wish for them to succeed, and they want to give them what they never had.The film deals with this circumstance sensibly with Josh’s mom acting as the voice of reason. His father is not a bad man by any means, and it is during one scene in the rain after Josh loses again that we see that. Josh sits on the curb in silence as his dad talks to him and the boy genuinely asks, “Why are you standing so far away from me?” It’s at this moment that Mr. Waitzkin realizes that he has blown things out of proportion and embraces his boy telling him that everything is okay.

Eventually, Josh goes back to playing with his buddy Vinnie (Laurence Fishburne Jr.) in the park and takes some fishing trips with his dad. Despite the initial cautions of Pandolfini, Josh goes into the biggest tournament against his greatest competition without stressing over chess. He just uses all the knowledge he has accrued and plays a beautiful game. Over the course of the game, he deviates from Fischer, winning on his own terms, the way that he wants. He may have been searching for Bobby Fischer, but ultimately he found himself instead and Josh is better for it.

The film is framed with the voice-over of Josh as he recounts the exploits of Fischer which then is juxtaposed with his own story. When the film came out back in 1993, Josh was still playing in his early teens and Bobby Fischer had come out of solitude to finally beat his old rival Boris Spassky. Both were master chess players, but with two very different stories.

This is certainly a feel good story, but it has wonderfully nuanced characters that make it a step above other such films. Max Pomeranc is wonderfully innocent and unassuming with his big doe eyes and a slight lisp. Kingsley and Fishburne on their part give two worthy performances as his two starkly different mentors with dueling strategies. It is, however, Joe Mantegna and Joan Allen who have the most important roles as Josh parents because their hopes and struggles are universal for all parents. We can empathize with them and the life they want for their son. It’s then the film becomes about far more than chess. It’s about family, friends, and being true to yourself.

4/5 Stars