No Pain, No Gain

Not Like Old Times: Sean Penn, left, and Kevin Bacon are ex-friends reunited by tragedy in Mystic River.Photo: Merie W. Wallace

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River has one of the most brutally effective opening sequences I’ve ever seen. Three 11-year-old friends from a working-class Irish neighborhood in South Boston—Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum, and Dave Boyle—are playing on the street when they are approached by two menacing men posing as cops. Rigid with fear, Sean and Jimmy stand by as Dave is ordered into the men’s car and driven away. We don’t need to be shown—although we are anyway—that Dave will be held captive and molested before he escapes. The clear implication in these early moments is that a great and irrevocable horror is about to break out, not only for Dave but also for his two friends, who will never forget it. Eastwood has sometimes been accused, especially in his Dirty Harry days, of desensitizing the emotional effects of violence, but this sequence does just the opposite. It viscerally conveys the first flush of a lifelong trauma.

Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane and written by Brian Helgeland, Mystic River is about how another crime, 25 years later, brings these boys back together again. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a Massachusetts homicide cop whose pregnant wife left him six months earlier; Dave (Tim Robbins), who has a young son and a wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), is frayed and without a steady career; Jimmy (Sean Penn), who, like Dave, remained in the old neighborhood, runs a corner market ten years after doing time for a robbery. The inexplicable murder of his teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) reunites them—Sean as the chief investigator and Dave as a suspect. No matter who was responsible for the killing, Jimmy wants to get to him before the cops do.

The three lead actors are highly accomplished at conveying how their characters have grown apart over the years. They are bound by what goes unspoken between them. When this fresh tragedy hits, they are unequipped to make sense of their own feelings, which are all mixed up with their history together. Eastwood plays the movie on parallel tracks: as murder mystery and as psychological study. The police-procedural aspects are well done, but the characters, notably Jimmy’s, are what give the movie its dark force.

Sean Penn is so frighteningly good in this movie that he outdoes even the best of his earlier work. When one of the investigators, played by Laurence Fishburne, says that Jimmy is “in for a world of hurt,” he doesn’t know the half of it. With his slicked-back hair and black leather jackets, Jimmy is a man who has uneasily made his peace with domesticity but still has a con’s instincts. When his daughter, the love of his life, is first reported missing, he can taste the disaster in the air. All of his inchoate tough-guy attitudes do him no good in this situation. Arriving at the crime scene and realizing the full horror of what has occurred, he unleashes a pure animal howl. Jimmy feels that somehow, in ways he can’t articulate, he is responsible for what happened. Sitting on the porch soon after the wake, he tells Dave, who is not yet a suspect, that he can’t cry—until Dave points out to him that he already is. Penn doesn’t sentimentalize Jimmy or make him into a working-class lug. He doesn’t, except for that crime-scene appearance, give us great arias of rage. The most devastating scene in the movie is, in fact, its quietest, when Jimmy is alone in the morgue and places a dress on Katie’s corpse. Jimmy is a man for whom violence has brought a reckoning with himself. The only way he knows how to survive his sorrow is to seek revenge, and he’s willing to live with that.

Not everything in this film works. A subplot involving Sean and his wife, who keeps phoning him but is afraid to speak, is trite. Scenes involving local thugs doing Jimmy’s dirty work are overwrought and seem to be out of a grade-B Western. Eastwood has a tendency to be too literal-minded, and more than once in scenes with Dave, he inserts flashbacks that undercut Robbins’s performance. (We can see all we need to see in Dave’s spooked face.) Perhaps he also makes too big a deal out of the fatalism of the story, with its quasi-biblical suggestion that the stain of sin is passed along the generations and that one must pay up for the past. The characters in the movie may feel this way, but does Eastwood really have to join the chorus? We don’t need the hyperbole. It is more than enough that we have been brought shudderingly close to the ravages of these people’s lives.

Kill Bill: Vol. 1 is Quentin Tarantino’s giddy homage to the movies he grew up with at the grind houses—the Hong Kong chop-sockies and spaghetti Westerns and samurai and blaxploitation flicks. The plot has a direct-action vividness suitable for a video game. Uma Thurman, who has the look of a chiseled android here, plays an ex-member of the elite Deadly Viper Assassination Squad (DIVAS), code name Black Mamba, who is left for dead by them and her ex-lover Bill after they slaughter her wedding party during a dress rehearsal in El Paso. Four years later, rising up out of a coma, Mamba, better known as the Bride, sets out on a mission to systematically eliminate her attackers one by one. This being a Tarantino movie, the dramatic arc, divided into five chapters in highly varying visual styles, is a lot more fractured and back-and-forth than I’ve made it sound. And because it’s Tarantino, the bloodletting is in full flow. It’s an homage all right, with extra ketchup.

Heads are severed, arms lopped off, geysers of red spray the screen. And yet it’s all in (perverse) good fun. Tarantino has made a killing comedy, and because his film is entirely circumscribed by other movies and a mishmash of source music and pop tunes, it’s difficult to get worked into a high dudgeon by the carnage. It’s not as if there is anything in Kill Bill that connects to the world of real emotions. It is a video game. It’s also a species of live-action anime, and just in case we missed the point, Tarantino himself has directed an extended segment of the film as pure animation in conjunction with a Japanese anime studio.

Actually, there are two moments in this movie when something resembling real feeling emerges. The first is effective: the Bride, who was pregnant at the time of the attack, wakes up from her coma and realizes she lost her baby, and wails. The second is when the Bride kills a Viper, played by Vivica A. Fox, and her 4-year-old daughter walks in on the bloodshed. The girl blankly surveys the scene, and the Bride speaks blankly back to her. The emotional ramifications of this scene are way outside Tarantino’s range. At times like these, his anything-to-goose-the-movie aesthetic comes a cropper and he seems no more human than his shock squads.

Tarantino and Miramax made the decision to split Kill Bill—originally shot as one movie—roughly in half, with Vol. 2 set to open in February. I realize grind-house flicks tend to run on the short side—Vol. 1 is under two hours—but I would have preferred to see the whole shebang at once. If Tarantino is not “too much,” then what is he? Why stop an orgy at the halfway point? Instead, we’re fobbed off with piddling cliffhangers and teasers.

As it is, poor David Carradine is represented in Vol. 1 only by his voice and hands. (He won’t show up in the flesh until February.) But Lucy Liu turns up as white-robed yakuza gang lord O’Ren-Ishii, and the Bride’s battles with her black-suited samurai legions, and ultimately with Ishii, are the film’s comic-ghastly high points. When these two square off in a moonlit Japanese garden in the snow, the violence, for once, has a hushed grace.

There is no ironic overlay in Tarantino’s movies, no “commenting” on the pop schlock he’s replicating. He simply wants to remake in his own way the kinds of movies he’s always loved, and he’s about as uncynical as a movie geek can be. When French New Wave directors like Truffaut and Godard paid tribute to Hollywood pulp, they poeticized it and gave it an infusion of feeling. Tarantino’s tributes are, for the most part, far less complicated: He’s a fan, and Kill Bill is his mash note.

No Pain, No Gain