By Thane Peterson
Over the weekend, I caught two movies I've been eagerly anticipating: Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which hits theaters nationwide on Oct. 15, and Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill -- Vol. 1, which opened Oct. 10. My quick take: Absolutely don't miss Mystic River, a great movie with some of the finest performances by Hollywood actors in recent memory.
However, and I never thought I'd say this about a Tarantino release, don't even bother with Kill Bill unless you're just curious. Its endless bloodletting is as mindlessly repetitive as pornography. I was fidgeting with boredom during the 22-minute fight scene that's supposed to be the movie's climax (at least until Vol. 2 comes out in February).
My longer take: What's most interesting to me is how Eastwood and Tarantino now deal with screen violence, which was what brought them both to fame. Tarantino became a cult director with 1992's Reservoir Dogs, which had a torture scene so terrifying it gave me nightmares for years. Eastwood's first big breaks as a movie actor came in shoot-'em-up spaghetti Westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars and playing the trigger-happy detective Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry.
The difference is that Tarantino has abandoned the intelligence of his two later films (Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown) and reverted to using violence as a crutch, while Eastwood, now doing more directing than acting, has moved on.
In Mystic River, Eastwood broods over violence and its consequences in a way he hasn't done since he starred in and directed 1992's Unforgiven, for my money one of the greatest Westerns ever made. His new movie, however, is far more subtle and poetic. Adapted from Dennis Lehane's best-selling 2002 novel of the same title, Mystic River's theme is the warping effects that being victimized can have on a life and how those consequences ripple through families and neighborhoods.
The story revolves around two horrific crimes. The first occurs when three 11-year-old boys playing in the street in a working-class Boston neighborhood are accosted by two sexual predators posing as police officers. The men coax one of the boys, Dave Boyle (played as an adult by Tim Robbins), into their car. Eastwood doesn't show the violence, but we learn mainly through dialog that the men repeatedly molest the boy over four days before he manages to escape.
When Dave is returned home by the police, he must forever live with the knowledge that the neighborhood considers him "damaged goods," a boy who will never be quite the same. His two friends, Jimmy Markum and Sean Divine, are left to wonder for the rest of their lives why they weren't the ones to get into the car and how their lives would have been different if they had been.
Fast-forward 25 years, and the second crime occurs when Jimmy Markum's 19-year-old daughter Katie (Emmie Rossum) is beaten and shot to death in a park. Markum (played as an adult by Sean Penn) is a widower and reformed criminal who has painfully remade his life as a law-abiding citizen with considerable help from his iron-willed second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney). Jimmy and Dave still see one another because Annabeth and Dave's wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) are cousins. Sean Divine (Kevin Bacon), who had drifted out of their lives after going to college and becoming a homicide detective, comes back with a vengeance when he's assigned to investigate Katie's murder.
One reason this movie is so good is that Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have kept it so spare. They stick very close to Lehane's fine novel, pulling much of the dialog directly from its pages. But they also take a big risk in refusing to lard up the script with clumsy explication or excess background. Eastwood leaves it to the actors to flesh out their characters simply with a gesture: a slump of the shoulder, a shuffle in the walk, a defiant smile.
And without exception they do it brilliantly. Penn, with his tattooed arms and neck, his manic energy and dangerous calm, gives a riveting performance that makes him the center of the film. Bacon and Robbins are also first-rate.
I've said before that Linney and Harden are two of the most gifted American film actresses working today (see BW Online, 5/15/01, "Three Reasons for Going to the Movies"). For me, the brilliance of Linney's performance is reflected in a single imperious smile she gives as Annabeth and her family watch a parade. That one gesture sums up her character, her background, and her relationship to her husband. Harden, as Dave's schlubbish, tormented wife Celeste, a woman who often seems to blend into the scenery, is equally wonderful. She does the remarkable job of at times carrying the movie while remaining almost invisible.
The honesty and sincerity of these performances makes Kill Bill look all the more shallow (see BW Online, 10/06/03, "Kill Bill: A Bloodfest Soaked in Red Ink?"). Of course, honesty and sincerity are the last things Tarantino demands of his characters. The movie is supposed to be a tribute to the B-grade kung-fu flicks the director devoured during his youthful apprenticeship as a video-store clerk, and his ironic detachment is so thick you could cut it with a knife.
Uma Thurman stars as a former member of the Deadly Viper Assassin Squad whose one-time partners in crime turn on Thurman on her wedding day and murder everyone present. Their big mistake is not making sure The Bride, as Thurman's character is known, is actually dead. She survives, only to lie comatose in a hospital bed for four years, being systematically raped by an evil hospital worker and the deadbeats he brings in to have sex with her for $75 a pop. Then, one day, The Bride awakens and sets about exacting revenge -- first on the rapists and then on her former colleagues.
Tarantino's aim seems to be to make a movie so stylized in its violence that it's as remorseless as a cartoon or video game. He has a theory that movie violence is mainly pretty unreal anyway. As he told Newsweek critic David Ansen in a recent interview, "a beheading doesn't make me wince" in a movie, but "when somebody gets a paper cut in a movie, you go, 'Ohhh.!'"
In Kill Bill, Tarantino's trademark violence all happens early on, when The Bride bites half the face off one of the rapists and kills another by repeatedly slamming a metal door on his head. After that, all the violence is the stylized type that isn't supposed to really count -- endless gushing arteries and severed heads and limbs.
Tarantino apparently thinks violence is what keeps him youthful as a director. "If I were to just keep expanding on that Jackie Brown thing, you know, in 15 years' time I'd be making some really geriatric movies," he told Ansen.
Given that Miramax was prepared to let him make virtually any movie he wanted in light of his past box-office success and the six-year lag since Jackie Brown, I wish he had set himself a real challenge -- like making a romantic comedy or a documentary or maybe even a musical. It isn't just the violence in Kill Bill that doesn't count. Ultimately, the whole movie doesn't much either.
Peterson is a contributing editor at BusinessWeek Online. Follow his weekly Moveable Feast column, only on BusinessWeek Online
Edited by Patricia O'Connell