The Movie Club

Rivers of Perception

A few weeks ago, the editor Michael Caruso (who works in the same building as Slate’s New York office) enunciated for me a formula about good movies and hype: When you see them before everyone else, your instinct is to blow the trumpet and herald a great masterpiece. When you see them later in the curve, your instinct is to say, “Well, that was overrated.” It is the job of the critic to steer a surer course through these rivers of perception, and I’m proud to say I do—at least half the time. Sometimes my rudder wobbles.

Sarah and Manohla: I found myself, like both of you, in the funny position of liking Mystic River hugely but being thrown into reverse by some rave someplace or other. No, it wasn’t Tony’s. It must have been the one by my old friend David Denby. (It often is, come to think of it.) I recognized some of my own thoughts on Eastwood’s migration from Dirty Harry to Guilty Harry but so hyperbolically expressed that I thought, “Whoa, Nellie.” Seeing the movie for the second time, I was fascinated by Eastwood’s blend of manly laconicism and ham-handedness, by all those casually framed scenes that ended with moodily self-conscious flourishes—the Eastwood touch. And don’t get me started on that woman’s damn mouth. (Didn’t anyone preview this movie?) But I disagree with you, Sarah, in dwelling too much on the shots meant to evoke the inexorability of fate. In between them, there’s a lot of chewy psychology—the kind that doesn’t often make it into big-studio movies, let alone mysteries.

The bedroom scene, often referred to with reference to a certain “Scottish” play, is the one that I’m always asked about—as in my colleague Fred Kaplan’s succinct e-mail “Re: the bedroom scene in Mystic River. What the *&%#&?” I had the unfair advantage of having read the Dennis Lehane novel, so I knew it was coming and recognized the portents in Laura Linney’s performance—a performance that seems unusually subdued if you don’t know what’s coming. Her husband, Jimmy (Sean Penn) had not only committed the unspeakable crime of murder but the murder of an innocent man. (Well, not entirely innocent: Swept under the carpet, morally speaking, is that Dave—overacted by Tim Robbins—has beaten to death a convicted pedophile receiving a blow job from a teenage boy, an offense that merits punishment but hardly vigilante execution. I guess Dirty Harry ain’t dead yet.)

How, we wonder, can Jimmy possibly live with himself? Years earlier, he’d committed a murder and then gone straight and opened a grocery store and tried to set an example for his daughter. (He also sent money to the murdered man’s family, anonymously.) Now he has lost that daughter—thanks, in part, to the psychological ramifications of that earlier killing. He is morally dead. This is when his wife moves in to ease his conscience and to show him that she’s hot for the king he will become. Not only, she suggests, must he accept his destiny, he must embrace it. The movie ends with the radiant new king (and damned human being) facing his old friend/new adversary, Sean (Kevin Bacon), from opposite sides of a parade in which American flags are waving: There’s that great I’m-gonna-get-you mimed gun blast from Sean and the “What? Who? Me?” mock-innocence of Jimmy as the pair become the stuff of a movie myth.

You say it’s from left field? The screenwriter Brian Helgeland might agree with you: He left that scene (right from the book) out of his first draft, and Eastwood (taking his cue from Lehane) asked for its reinstatement. But I agree with Tony’s “startling reversal of perspective.” What we have witnessed is not just the death of a moral human being, but the birth of a sociopathic gangster—soon to be a mightier pillar of his community.

Tomorrow, I’d like to get to the real elephant in the room, which is Elephant, and Capturing the Friedmans—and Peter Pan, which I’ll see tonight, I swear. But since we’re all so self-reflexive this year, I thought I’d share an e-mail from Robert Ridout: “The one thing that always strikes me about the yearly Movie Club is how much movie critics enjoy discussing their opinions with each other. I cannot imagine quite the same sort of roundtable discussion with a group of book critics. I wonder if it is because books are a much more personal experience while movies are best experienced (and evidently lend themselves to be critiqued) as a group.”

I’m thinking it has something to do with the number of times we’ve gone out after movies together and gotten loaded, but that’s just me.