| || ||The Quiet American |
dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Brothers
When I was younger, I thought that the feelings that went through me were—that I would outgrow them, that the anxiety or panic or whatever it is called would disappear, but you sort of suspect it at thirty-five, and when you get to be fifty you definitely know you’re stuck with your neuroses, or whatever you want to classify them as—demons, completed ceremonies, any old damn thing. —Harry Smith
Like the jazz music that so often dresses up his films’ soundtracks and more than once has become their subject, Clint Eastwood is something of a jazzman filmmaker. He’s perfectly willing to sit in on a pick-up session just to exercise his chops or lend an axe to someone else’s show. In an age where every Hollywood film is theoretically a pre-sold package targeted for precise appeal and maximum profit, Eastwood’s work-for-work’s sake ethic would seem to align him with an older model of Hollywood in which making films was simply a matter of sustaining routine on top of a matter of economy. So I was disappointed when I heard, at the time of its release, that Space Cowboys (2000) might be his last picture. “Retirement” is not a concept I associate with masculine professionalism of the Eastwood variety; think of Ford, Hawks, and Huston continuing to work while their bodies were falling apart. Then Eastwood made Blood Work(2002), which was reassuring in spite of itself. Even if his films threatened to become extended comedy routines about the hassles of being an old fart in a young punk’s world (or “considered reflections on the mysteries of aging” as some would prefer it) crudely strung together with near-risible plots more shopworn than their heroes, the fact that they came from Eastwood somehow dignified them. Blood Work may be the title of the mystery novel on which the film is based, but in my head I kept hearing “Blood Count,” Billy Strayhorn’s final composition written as he was dying of cancer, recorded just after his death by Duke Ellington. I don’t think the association would have occurred in a million years if the film had been directed by anyone else, which it certainly could have been. But now Eastwood has made Mystic River, which no one would dare claim as just another pleasant time-waster, and the dividends for hanging in there (for both him and us) are immediately apparent. The giveaway detail: the musical score was written by Eastwood himself.
Another telling detail, equally rare for an Eastwood film, is that the 73-year-old man himself doesn’t appear onscreen. That’s because Mystic River is not a tragicomedy about being old, but about the grief of settling into middle age, specifically the middle age of a married working-class man. Yet this is defiantly not a film about some tired notion of “mid-life crisis.” Mystic River’s middle-age is defined by its lack of crisis; this is mid-life stasis, broken only by the inevitability of tragedy and the disintegration of relationships, which is where the majority of the film’s action happens to fall. Sure, there’s plenty going on in the story with Eastwood’s perennial themes of solitary vengeance, intuitions of violence, and a lot to tie it to the current American political landscape as well, but let those who insist that a work of art make an instant and unambiguous statement about its intentions and the historical moment from which it springs argue out the subtleties of Eastwood’s politics. In this case I’m more interested in what might unfashionably be called the timeless aspects of Mystic River, a film that has as much in common with John Cassavetes’s Husbands(1970) as it does with Unforgiven (1991). In both films, a death sets three middle-aged friends off on a binge of destructive (and self-destructive) behavior, trying desperately to make sense of their lives in the face of impending mortality, and trying futilely break out of their class-bound routines. Neither film allows us anything resembling an easy relationship to the lead characters; they are unforgivable bastards one moment and pitiful the next.
In fact, Husbands might be a better title for this film, more direct than the vaguely Christian attitudes indicated by Mystic, which Eastwood, clearly just humoring his source novel, can only point to by tossing the camera’s head back to heaven occasionally and fading to blinding white light at the film’s climactic murder. The husbands in question are played by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon, all giving career-topping performances as a trio of childhood friends uneasily reunited in middle age. Not coincidentally, these three actors are all between 43 and 45, a rare instance of Hollywood age verisimilitude (Eastwood isn’t especially known for acting his age either) that seems crucial to the success of this film. As the commercial American cinema continues to lose interest in showing or appealing to anyone over the age of 20, and an ever more callow and aggressively hyped generation of movie stars begins to take over (epitomized, it seems to me, by Ben Affleck), Mystic River may well come to be seen as one of the last high water marks of the post-classical actors’ cinema. As an ex-convict sucked into avenging the murder of his daughter, Penn’s explosive cocktail of rage and grief may remind many of monologuing Brando in Last Tango in Paris, but such a comparison is only grasping at the nearest superlative straw. Robbins, meanwhile, is an introverted black hole of fear and self-loathing. His eyelids seem to be permanently pinned open with those little clips from A Clockwork Orange, only he’s seen something far worse than Alex was ever forced to watch. On a second viewing, with the mystery solved in advance, his character takes on previously unimagined levels of pathos and forces us to guiltily reread our own hatred and suspicion of him from the first time. But somehow for me it’s Bacon who comes across the strongest, if only because I least expected a great performance from him. Though given far less screen time to extend his role emotionally from the mostly functional place it serves (and saddled with the lamest subplot, his unfortunate mouth-wife), he makes the most of every moment. Watch him coolly and creepily taking in Penn’s violent reaction to the discovery of his daughter’s body, the visible pleasure at seeing his childhood rival (and reminder of the working-class background he has modestly escaped) forced to eat shit justified by professional necessity.
It’s this moment and dozens like it that come across as incontestably real that make Mystic River for me as opposed to any overall engagement with its grand design or statement. These are aided immensely by Henry Bumstead’s (speaking of old pros, this guy designed the sets for Vertigo) unobtrusive but letter-perfect production designs, nailing the look of working class Boston interiors with just a few elegant strokes—some peeling paint here, an old-fashioned light switch there. But if this is ultimately Eastwood’s film, the moment that made me realize it was strangely enough the least Eastwoodian two seconds in the whole picture: a brief shot of Penn and Bacon standing in the middle of the street from the point of view of an imaginary car driving away. Eastwood, to say the least, isn’t usually fond of expressive camera movements, which may be part of what gives this brief moment such shocking power. The movement can’t be attributed to any narrative function, yet it rhymes with an identical shot from 25 years earlier at the beginning of the film. This kind of camera-stylo device, linking movement to memory and history in a kind of subjective tense would seem to be right out of an Alain Resnais film, and it gives you an idea of the kind of art-film ambition that Mystic River has scattered throughout it.
Which brings me back to Eastwood’s score. Sure, it’s a bit repetitive and overinsistent. Yes, a Hollywood composer certainly could have bettered it. But who else today would bother with such an unnecessary, deeply moving personal touch? Is this really the gesture of man who can sit back, in the words of Kent Jones, “confident that the first AD is getting the shot?” At least this time around, Eastwood is playing a new tune.
Mystic River is now playing in theaters.