Mystic River looks, tastes, smells, feels, and sounds like a masterpiece.  It’s Clint Eastwood-directed, Brian Helgeland-written (Oscar-winner behind the L.A. Confidential screenplay), Dennis Lehane novel-based, and Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Lawrence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney-starring.

Problem is, it’s not a masterpiece.  It’s not a bad movie.  It’s just frustratingly inert.

And for that, the blame falls on Dearest Eastwood.  From the jump, with its opener of three kids (our soon-to-be-leads) experiencing something that forever robs them of their innocence, you know that Eastwood has latched onto Lehane’s big themes above all else.

The key line here is spoken by Robbins’ character, the prime suspect in the film’s central murder case when he says, “Hurting people makes you feel alien.”  That’s the line that convinced Clint to make the film, his ultimate agenda—that violence mutates human beings into something inhuman.  It’s the central thesis of every movie he has directed since (and including) Unforgiven.

Thing is, he doesn’t give the murder mystery material the pulse it needs.  Eastwood thinks that the murder of ex-con Jimmy Markum’s daughter is just the catalyst for exposing abuse inside his damaged protagonists, so he commences with the emotional flaying and gives lip service to the mystery stuff.

In reality, the film has a lot of the aforementioned stuff, and none of it is terribly interesting.

The movie plods along, with scenes just…happening.  They don’t evolve from previous ones.  They just compulsorily are.  Often, I’d find myself confused because the film would cut so apathetically from one scene to the next that I’d wonder why the actors changed mid-scene into different people.

To be fair, any chances of the film becoming exciting are stifled by the elegiac, funereal tone of the proceedings.  The film is shot as close to black and white as you can get without going total monochrome, and the repetitious score (written by Clint) has a dirge-like solemnity.

Again, not a shocker.  Mystic River is about the worst thing in the world, how damage to a child throws traditional morality off its axis, and the conflict that ensues when its leads try to right that injustice.  We should feel tension in Markum’s inner struggle as his need for vengeance grows from his daughter’s murder.  We should feel tension in Robbins’ Dave Boyle, how his molestation as a youth may have left him psychotically scarred.

That’s what Lehane dramatized in his book.  Can human beings endure the unendurable and emerge with humanity intact?

Eastwood never lets us think they will; he’s mistaken in assuming that just because the story has a tragic ending means the ending was predetermined.  His judgment irreparably harms the movie.

The rest of Mystic River?  It’s an “almost-er,” indicative of the many times where Clint impulsively jumps on a film and shoots the first script draft, rather than ironing out some of the kinks.

Lehane’s book sprawls, and it can—it has the space.  Brian Helgeland’s script tries to abbreviate every subplot rather than just cutting out the inessential information.  Lawrence Fishburne’s wisecracking Sergeant?  Necessary in the novel, wholly redundant in the film.  The marital woes of Kevin Bacon’s hero cop?  Hokey and superfluous in the novel, hokey and superfluous here.

Most egregious is Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth rip-off.  She’s Generic Wife 101 for two hours of the film, and suddenly she’s directing Penn’s character to embrace the Dark Side.

Furthermore, her scene explains the best-left-unexplainable; the film should end twenty minutes before it does, on a heartbreaking and chillingly ambiguous shot of Sean Penn stumbling down the road.  Linney clarifies everything that scene obfuscated, and for someone who loves ambiguity as much as Clint, I’m curious as to why he made that choice.

There’s a lot of character work that needs addressing, actually.  The more I think about it, the more I disagree with every major part getting a famous upgrade.  It’s distracting, for one—this is a fundamentally blue-collar story loaded with Big Stars.  Everyone does their own thing, and since Clint’s “one take, no rehearsals” shooting approach lends little direction, the result is a mish-mash of acting styles that sporadically cohere.

On one end of the spectrum, you have Tim Robbins, turning in maybe the worst Academy Award-winning performance I have ever seen.  Robbins is a great actor, and his Dave Boyle is the toughest part in the film.  At any given moment, Robbins has to convey great inner pain that reads as either sadness or psychosis, and Robbins responds to the challenge by alternating between sneeringly obvious insinuations of guilt (Bacon’s interrogation of him, the worst scene in the film, feels like an outtake from “Scooby Doo” where the gang confronts the weekly Red Herring), and woe-is-me Greek Tragedy.

The climax should be a heart-pounding stretch of cinema.  It reveals Dave’s true nature, all the while crosscutting between Bacon and Penn pursuing him with drastically differing intentions, and yet everything feels sedate because Robbins’s performance never rings true.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Bacon and Penn, and they make the movie worth watching.  Bacon is so understated as the tortured police officer; you sense he cares about solving the murder case, even if Clint doesn’t.

And Penn is a force of nature.  I’ve always thought Penn as a great technical actor in search of an honest emotion; here, he finds it.  He taps into something primal—the pain of losing a child, the struggle to be good, the allure of wickedness—in a way he never has before.  It’s free of artifice, and the results are painful to watch (people often point to his grand “WHERE’S MY DAUGHTER” outburst, but his final scene with Harden’s character is just as devastating, and whisper-quiet).  He also gives the movie what it lacks: a pulse.

Still, he’s not the whole movie.  The rest is less-than great.  We can see what could have been, what just exceeds Eastwood’s grasp.  Maybe that’s the real tragic inevitability behind Mystic River.

Culture Clint Eastwood Retrospective: MYSTIC RIVER