“Looks like damaged goods to me,” says a character at the beginning of this movie, and that could refer to everyone we will meet in a story that explores the impact of an unbearable tragedy on two generations in a community bounded by the river of the title.
It wants to be a big, serious movie. It has big, serious star power and big, serious themes. There are moments of power and flickers of meaning but it is ultimately hollow and unsatisfying.
Three men are forever bound to each other by something that happened when they were children. Jimmy, Sean, and Dave were playing street hockey and writing their names in wet cement when a man got out of a car, flashed a badge, and then told just one of them — Dave — to get in the back of the car. The man was not a cop. He was a pedophile. He and another man molested Dave for four days until he ran away.
As adults, Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are no longer friends but they have stayed in the same neighborhood and are always aware of each other. They are brought back together by another devastating loss, the murder of Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossem).
Sean is the police detective assigned to the case, along with his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne). Dave and his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) provide comfort and support to Jimmy’s family after Katie’s death.
As Jimmy and Sean both use whatever resources they have to find out what happened to Katie, the past pulls at them.
The characters and their stories grow more and more tangled, like strands of seaweed swept by strong current.
A lifetime of history in the same place has all of the characters overlapping, intersecting, and echoing each other’s lives. Katie’s boyfriend has a brother who is mute. Sean has an estranged wife who calls him but cannot bring herself to speak. Other characters speak, but not about the things that tear at them. Or they speak, but they lie. Three wives must respond to their husbands’ involvement in terrible deeds. A child loses a parent and a parent loses a child. We see the sacred (Bacon’s character is named Devine) and the profane (Jimmy’s hoodlum buddies are the Savage brothers). The names are another indicator of the movie’s heavy-handedness.
Jimmy and Sean, like characters from an old James Cagney/Pat O’Brien movie, are boyhood friends who ended up on opposite sides, one cop, one ex-con with strong ties to unsavory characters. Each struggles in his own way with survivor guilt over not being the one who got in the molester’s car and with a resulting sense of what it takes to achieve justice. Each struggles with the attempt to find meaning after an incident with such a sense of randomness and such devastating consequences. Dave struggles with his sense of himself as “the boy who escaped from the wolves” but who never really escaped. In one of the movie’s most chilling moments, he tells his wife that he was no longer himself after the assault and that “once it’s in you, it — stays.”
Director and jazz fan Clint Eastwood plays his big, showy cast like a jazz ensemble, giving each one a chance to step forward for a spotlight moment. Rossem’s brief appearance makes her character’s death a wrenching loss. Robbins, Harden, Robbins, Laura Linney, and Penn are each given a moment to step forward and pull out all the stops. This is a cast that can deliver the goods in the big moments, but at other times the performances feel condescending, as though the actors have to work hard to play characters who are not as smart as they are. At the end it is all about the show, not the substance, and these themes and these stories deserve better.
Parents should know that the movie has graphic violence, including murders. While some of the violence and the child molestation occur off-screen, the depictions are still deeply disturbing. Characters drink and smoke a great deal and use very strong language.
Families who see this movie should talk about the way that even people who are not directly victims of tragic events can be as haunted by them as those who are. They should also talk about the way that different characters in the movie think about justice.
Families who appreciate this movie will also appreciate The Shawshank Redemption.