Once again, a movie withholds vital information in order to pump up its
dramatic level in the last act. This device may not be illegitimate, but it
leaves one feeling they've been manipulated by a screenwriter with limited
gifts. Discounting the negative aftertaste, however, director Clint Eastwood
delivers a psychological thriller with considerable tone and artistry as it
progresses toward that somewhat unsatisfactory resolution.
In a blue-collar section of Boston known as East Buckingham, three boys,
Jimmy Markham, Dave Boyle and Sean Devine play in the streets. As they're
inscribing their names in a street slab of wet cement -- a little bit of
harmless vandalism -- a car stops, a burly man gets out sporting a set of
handcuffs, and intimidates Dave into getting in his car. But it's not a
police station Dave's brought to. It's a basement dungeon, where he's
subjected to the sexual depravity of a group of perverts. He manages to
escape after 4 days of torture but he'll never be the same.
The memory haunts him into adulthood where we find Dave (Tim Robbins) in a
local bar admiring Jimmy Markham's (Sean Penn) fetching daughter Katie (very
special Emmy Rossum) dancing sensually with her girlfriends on the bar. When
he gets home to his wife much later, his dishevelment, wound on his abdomen
and bloody hands shock his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) speechless. He
explains that he had to beat up a man who attacked him, and might have killed
him. This is an explanation that never quite comes to full acceptance by a
She checks the papers for the discovery of a dead body but finds no account of
it. But, what does come to light and to the attention of law enforcement is
the dead body of Katie, a heinous crime that brings Dave's boyhood chum Sean
(Kevin Bacon) on the case as the homicide cop. He and partner Whitey
(Laurence Fishburne) begin an earnest and comprehensive investigation seeking
the killer of his old buddy's girl.
But his old buddy Jimmy (Sean Penn) has grown up with a rap sheet and some
time in the pen... and a couple of his gang pals are still carrying out his
wishes even though he's gone straight arrow as a convenience store owner.
But the loss of his beloved daughter threatens to bend him back to his former
ways when he sets out to wreak his own form of justice. The law has little
to do with the form of revenge that will satisfy him. It's really a matter
of who gets to the perp first.
The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (academy awarded for "L.A. Confidential")
is drawn from the novel by Dennis Lehane and is rich with the detail of
relationships and the complexities of the characters as they are affected by
the crime, the coverups and the outcome. This might have been director
Eastwood's best effort since "The Unforgiven" had it not rested on contrived
misdirection, as mentioned above. It is, however, a notch better than the
mess he made out of the exemplary crime novel, "Bloodwork."
Each and every member of the ensemble is at the top of their form, demanding
they reach into deep resources. One gets the idea that a faithfulness to
the calm but determined tone of the novel has been respected, giving us a
community of players we can relate. We should appreciate the lack of
exaggeration in a context that too often results in parody or stereotype.
Its punch lands with the point, too, that a horrific experience in youth is a
mental scar that doesn't dissipate through time. There's no such thing as an
emotional oil change.
In a part that might have been eclipsed by the dark brilliance of the 3
leads, Laurence Fishburne is particularly praiseworthy for his tough, hard
nose investigator who prevents his partner from making understandable
emotional compromises in analyzing the growing body of evidence. Fishburne
is convincing and impressive.
A compromise appears, though, in the visual part of the collaboration.
As in many, if not most, of Eastwood's work, scenes are underlit. We get
moments like the two cops in the car in which the driver is almost lost in
sidelight while his partner sitting in the passenger seat is all but
invisible, a voice in darkness, a shadow speaking. Does Eastwood love
photographic obscurity or does he just deprive his cinematographer time to
complete his work for the sake of the production budget? His Director of
Photography, Tom Stern, knows which it is but is likely not telling. When
permitted, Stern turns in a properly gritty and textured canvas to match the
street-style of the neighborhood and the hideous crime that envelops it. All
other technical credits are pro.
Eastwood, a prominent lover of jazz, along with composer Lennie Niehaus,
created the soundtrack music, which tastefully underscores the theme of
the piece without getting in its way.
~~ Jules Brenner