Film: He Tries Harder

Clint Eastwood has directed two dozen films since 1971, all of them wholly professional and some quite good. No mere star, however huge he may be at the box office, gets to make that many movies unless he knows exactly what he’s doing behind the camera. Yet I don’t know anybody who thinks of Eastwood primarily as a director and virtually no one outside Hollywood who regards his pictures as a collectively significant body of work. David Thomson, who usually gets these things right, damns them with faint praise: “As time passes, I suspect, Clint will seem merely a success, a classic producer, a pragmatist who could never muster enough interest in his own work.”

A harsh verdict? Perhaps—and yet the only Eastwood films I’ve felt the need to see more than once are Honkytonk Man, Unforgiven, and A Perfect World. To be sure, one good movie is enough to put you in the history books, but only if it’s Citizen Kane. Anything short of that and you need a longer list. Yet many people seem to want Eastwood to be a great director, and I suspect it is that longing that lies behind at least some of the favorable reviews of Mystic River. “Directors grow great by subtracting, not adding,” writes Roger Ebert, “and Eastwood does nothing for show, everything for effect.” (First the windup, then the pitch.)

I also suspect that Eastwood himself sees Mystic River as his big push toward seriousness. The giveaway is that he doesn’t act in it, just as he left himself out of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, albeit to far more modest effect. Instead, he’s cast a fabulous ensemble—Kevin Bacon, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Sean Penn, Tim Robbins—and put all his directorial emphasis squarely on their performances. It’s a discreet way of suggesting that he’s more than just a not-so-pretty face, that the undeniable success of his films arises from something beyond his own magnetic presence.

Up to a point, it does, for Mystic River holds your attention throughout the whole of its slightly excessive 137-minute length. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, it’s a well-crafted quasi-thriller that uses two crimes, one old (the kidnapping and molestation of a young child) and one new (the murder of the daughter of a friend of the molested boy), as the occasion (I almost said pretext) for an absorbing character study of working-class life in Irish Boston. From the storefronts to the stoops, the surfaces of that shabby parallel universe are portrayed with unsentimental exactitude, and the actors move through their fictional world with total absorption and conviction. I was especially impressed by Robbins—he is so completely immersed in his role that I didn’t even realize it was him up on the screen for the first 15 minutes or so—but nearly everybody in Mystic River is in top form.

So is Eastwood…up to a point. Having recently seen Kevin Costner’s Open Range, a film that works in spite of its on-screen star’s obvious lack of directorial skill, I was all the more impressed by the unobtrusive fluidity with which Mystic River moves from shot to shot. Though you won’t notice it unless you’re looking for it (which I was), Mystic River leaves no doubt that Eastwood has mastered the subtle art of cinematic montage.

Unfortunately, there’s more to a movie than how it looks, and I got the unmistakable feeling that Mystic River, for all its virtues, was trying way too hard to be impressive. Brian Helgeland’s script (and, presumably, the novel on which it is based) is a big part of the problem, maybe most of it. Solid and competent, yes, and occasionally more than that, but the straining for effect—the attempt to turn a plain old murder mystery into a full-blown Greek-Irish tragedy—is irritatingly noisy, as is Penn’s italicized performance as Jimmy, the furious ex-con whose daughter’s death brings past and present together to violent effect.

Whereas Robbins and Bacon vanish into their roles, Penn stands well in front of his, never letting you forget for a moment that he’s shooting for a best-actor Oscar, which he’ll probably win, Hollywood being what it is.

As I said, there’s more to a movie than how it looks, and that’s the part Eastwood often gets wrong, perhaps because he isn’t a writer. It’s odd that so unpretentiously professional a director should be drawn to portentous scripts, but Eastwood seems to love them, and that’s his downfall. Unforgiven and A Perfect World, the best of his other “serious” movies, are marred by a similar need to be bigger than they are, and even such exercises in pure entertainment as Honkytonk Man and Space Cowboys would have been better off had their director let out a couple pounds of hot air.

I should mention that Eastwood also composed the musical score for Mystic River (Lennie Niehaus orchestrated it, but Eastwood actually wrote the music himself). He gets extra points for trying I can’t think of another director capable of pulling off such a stunt—but the results, alas, are a windy exercise in string-laden schlock that has next to nothing in common with the gritty honesty of the images you see on screen. It underlines all the things about Mystic River that don’t work and undermines all the things that do.

If you want to see a movie that, unlike Mystic River, is at the farthest possible remove from portentousness, try Richard Linklater’s The School of Rock, the unabashedly implausible story of a superannuated heavy-metal guitarist (Jack Black) who, through a chain of coincidences too implausible to detail here, ends up as substitute teacher to a roomful of ten-year-old prigs at the fanciest prep school in town. Working behind the back of the starchy headmistress (Joan Cusack), Black turns his class into a seminar on the history of rock music and his students into a band called School of Rock, in the process making them infinitely nicer and happier.

Silly, yes, not to mention blatantly derivative of Revenge of the Nerds, but Black and Cusack are both letter-perfect, the kids are adorable, and Linklater (who directed Dazed and Confused, one of my all-time favorite high-school movies) spoofs the You-Can-Do-It school of Hollywood uplift so gently and affectionately that the parody is barely distinguishable from the real thing. Mind you, I make no exaggerated claims for The School of Rock, which is nothing more than a charming piece of fluff. On the other hand, it knows it’s fluff, and so has a basic integrity missing from Mystic River, which longs to be more than entertainment and consequently ends up being less than excellent.

A footnote for nervous parents: The School of Rock, despite its PG-13 rating, is as clean as a whistle. According to Black, “Just because you take out the cuss words doesn’t mean you have to be less funny. In fact, I think I was more funny to make up for it. You get more intense. You have to communicate those cusswords through your face muscles.” He does, and he’s right. Would that more contemporary filmmakers felt the same way.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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