Eastwood’s Mystic Tragedy Cuts Friends, Family Ties in Blood

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River , from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, has turned out to be a more-than-worthy choice to open the 41st New York Film Festival, and I must say, as an involved witness to the first New York Film Festival back in 1963, I’ve ceased to be amazed that the festival has survived all its legions of detractors to keep coming back year after year, stronger and more popular than ever. Indeed, as one of its beleaguered journalistic defenders in 1963, I never expected it to come back for a second year, much less a 41st.

As faithful as Messrs. Eastwood and Helgeland have been to Mr. Lehane’s deep feelings for family ties-in particular the helplessly wild love of fathers for daughters, and the numbing guilt of husbands toward wives-the film does not underline its message as insistently as the book does. Since excessive underlining has occasionally marred Mr. Eastwood’s most impressive previous works, Mystic River must be considered a decisive advance for the director toward complete artistic mastery of his narrative material. Still, the movie retains the essence of the book in demonstrating that just as all politics is local, all tragedy is familial.

The linked destinies of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) are forever clouded by an evil act inflicted during their otherwise uneventful childhoods. When l1-year-old Dave is taken away in a car by a pair of shrewdly calculating adult predators pretending to be police detectives, Jimmy and Sean can only look on helplessly, setting the stage for their lifelong regret over “dropping” Dave from their intimate circle after his traumatic misadventure. At this point, Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Helgeland leap forward 25 years to the respective adulthoods of the three co-protagonists, without dwelling on the book’s description of a whole community turning its back puritanically on Dave as “damaged goods.”

We then learn (more indirectly in the film than in the book) that Jimmy has served a short prison term for a series of robberies before becoming the respectable owner of a grocery store. Sean has become a detective with the Massachusetts State Police, and Dave has barely moved on from his humble origins as a low-paid laborer. Jimmy has been widowed and subsequently remarried and has one 19-year-old daughter, Katie Markum (Emmy Rossum), from his late first wife and two little girls from his second, Annabeth (Laura Linney). Sean has been separated from his wife and little girl, and Dave is in the midst of a shaky marriage with a neurotic partner, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden).

When Katie is brutally murdered, Jimmy goes berserk with grief and vows his own personal revenge against his daughter’s killer. As Sean and his African-American partner, jokingly named “Whitey” Powers (Laurence Fishburne), begin their investigation. Sean soon realizes that Jimmy and his former gang members may impede the investigation with their vigilante tactics. To make matters more complicated, Dave accidentally becomes a suspect in Kate’s murder after getting involved in an unrelated violent incident-unrelated, that is, to Katie’s murder, but very much related to the horrible crime inflicted upon him when he was a child. Unfortunately for Dave, the incident has left his hands bloodied, arousing the wife’s suspicions.

Ironies abound as fatal coincidences and rampant hysteria combine to create a murderous misunderstanding, binding three erstwhile playmates to the moral and emotional consequences of a hot-blooded homicidal ceremony. The acting is uniformly inspired, and deftly balances the bereft primal outbursts of Mr. Penn’s Jimmy and the emotionally disconnected depression of Mr. Robbins’ Dave at one extreme, and the cool, methodical procedures of Mr. Bacon’s and Mr. Fishburne’s dogged detectives on the other.

In this mostly male maelstrom, Ms. Linney’s Anabeth erupts in one transcendent Trojan Women –like scene in which she exalts her guilt-ridden husband Jimmy as a warrior king from the Celtic mists of blue-collar Boston’s immigrant past-a time when men of iron drew their metaphorical swords on anyone menacing their wives and daughters. Yet the testosterone level never reaches the heights of self-worshipping Schwarzeneggerian rapture. Mr. Eastwood keeps a lid on all the masculine fury by opening many scenes with overhead helicopter shots, pinning the characters down to their sociological surroundings, as well as making them submit to the caprices of a cosmic fate.

Like most of the more interesting films this year, Mystic River displays a darker view of our existence in the new millennium than was the norm in the old Hollywood dream factories. Mr. Eastwood is to be commended for reportedly insisting that the film be shot in its natural Boston habitat rather than in a cheaper approximation of Boston, such as bargain-basement Toronto. This emphasis on geographical authenticity helps make this film a masterpiece of the first order.

The Bride of Vengeance

Now that I have seen Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Vol. 1 , from his own screenplay, I can’t wait to see Kill Bill: Vol. 2 , due out next February. Still, I am glad he and his producers decided to release his multi-hour Kill Bill feature in two bladder-friendly parts, each one of normal and desirable movie length. After all the Vol. 1 martial-arts mayhem, which makes the Matrix movies look like acrobatic dance numbers from Singin’ in the Rain , I doubt that I would have had the energy to sit through both Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 at a single setting-particularly for an enterprise that professes to be a B-picture, however baroque. After all, a three- or four-hour B-picture is an oxymoron.

As it stands right now, Mr. Tarantino’s soulful kung fu flick does for Uma Thurman as an action icon what Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), did for Clint Eastwood. Indeed, the idea for Kill Bill reportedly originated in a conversation Mr. Tarantino had with Ms. Thurman during the shooting of his breakout film, Pulp Fiction (1994), after his debut, Reservoir Dogs (1992), had made him a cult sensation. But Ms. Thurman was less an action icon in Pulp Fiction than a memorably sassy dance performer with John Travolta on a date in which she called all the shots as his mob boss’ imperious mistress. Here, however, she is nothing less than a woman samurai, driven to avenge the slaughter of her entire wedding party at an El Paso rehearsal hall by the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, headed by Bill (David Carradine) and his three female hit women, Vernita Green (Vivica A. Fox), O-Ren Ishi (Lucy Liu) and Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah). After being shot in the head, Ms. Thurman’s character-thereafter known simply as the Bride-is left comatose for four years. One day, she suddenly awakens to find that she’s been sexually abused on a regular basis by a male nurse and his paying clients. After biting off the tongue of the latest would-be rapist, the Bride disposes of the male nurse in gruesome fashion and rides off in his “pussy wagon.” From then on, she becomes an avenging angel seeking retribution not only for the murderous assault upon her, but also for what she assumes must have been the death of the baby in her womb.

I suppose that there are many women moviegoers who will choose to give Mr. Tarantino’s latest opus as wide a berth as they have his three previous films, the most recent being the woman-hero-friendly Jackie Brown (1997), with blaxploitation movie veteran Pam Grier as the protagonist in Mr. Tarantino’s screen adaptation of an Elmore Leonard novel. There are several points to be made here about what exactly Mr. Tarantino represents in the current cinema. For one thing, he is the most casually color-blind Caucasian filmmaker around; not merely in terms of a liberal “tolerance” for African-Americans and Asians, but with a deep and passionate embrace of all their cultural nuances. The bare bones of his studio-authorized biography provide some auterist clues to his artistic predilections. Born in 1963 in Knoxville, Tenn., and raised by a single mother, he was named after the “half-breed” blacksmith character Quint Asper, played by a young Burt Reynolds on the old Gunsmoke TV show. When he was 2, his mother and he moved to the South Bay area south of Los Angeles, where he lived for the next two decades in a racially mixed neighborhood in the city of Torrance. He grew up sharing many of the movie and pop-cultural tastes of black audiences. There was some cultural lag at work here, as opposed to much of the rest of the country. Martial-arts movies, for example, continued to be popular with black audiences long after they lost their vogue with the mainstream. Mr. Tarantino quit school at 17 to take acting classes and support himself with odd jobs. He found what Godard and Truffaut had found earlier in the Paris Cinématèque; for Mr. Tarantino, its California equivalent was the Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, where he developed his encyclopedic awareness of film, old and new, American and foreign. Like the earlier New Wave directors, his work is full of homages to earlier filmmakers, particularly the darker and more violent masters of the medium.

What redeems Mr. Tarantino’s violence from mere exploitation is his genuine affection for the genres he celebrated, particularly his unironic appreciation, in Kill Bill , of the various moral codes by which his heroines conduct their lives and establish limits to their warrior behavior. But what makes him especially unusual is a fondness and respect for women that never lapses into lust or lechery. Even Truffaut, for all his professed love for women, often disguised his womanizing onscreen with the affected expression of a blushing little boy with his hand caught in the cookie jar. As it happens, Ms. Thurman’s Amazonian prowess as the Bride in Kill Bill has been compared to that of Sigourney Weaver as Murphy in Ridley Scott’s scary Alien (1979). The big difference in that Ms. Weaver’s character is just trying to save her skin from the danger posed by an insidiously malignant extraterrestrial. Ms. Weaver’s Murphy isn’t looking for trouble; it simply keeps coming at her. By contrast, Ms. Thurman’s Bride ventures across oceans and continents to find her enemies and vanquish them in single combat with their weapons of choice. She wishes to redress a wrong, and she devotes herself entirely to this mission.

By the end of Kill Bill: Vol. 1 , both her targeted victims have been women-Ms. Fox’s Vernita Green and Ms. Liu’s O-Ren Ishi-but neither antagonist is easy. Green’s little girl comes home from school right in the middle of the death struggle between the Bride and her would-be murderess. The two women resume their struggle when the child is sent upstairs. The Bride spares her dead enemy’s child, even though she tells the child that she knows she will grow up and come after her mother’s killer-but the Bride is used to such eventualities. Todd McCarthy of Variety objected to this one improbable sequence in his generously favorable review of the film. I can see what he means, but I think this is part of Mr. Tarantino’s overall strategy of keeping his audience off-balance. By the time she encounters Ms. Liu’s virtual army of Yakuza members, all of them set on destroying the Bride before she can reach their leader, we have been conditioned to accept the Bride’s superhuman abilities in combat. I would argue that, in a bizarre way, Mr. Tarantino empowers women as no action-genre director before him ever has. Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is quite simply a marvelous entertainment, and I recommend it to members of both sexes.