Double feature
A Chronicle fundraising job paid its first dividends today, and the paper is getting back into the black. To celebrate, I watched two movies.

Mystic River
I heard of a movie called “Mystic River” that was bound for Oscars and universal acclaim as one of the best movies of 2003. Is this the same movie? Really? I completely don’t see it.

We open on three scamps who will grow up to become Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, and Kevin Bacon. Young Sean is a snarky hardass who carves his name in cement, and he grows up to be an ex-con. Young Kevin is a reflective soul who grows up to be a cop. Young Tim, immediately after we are introduced to him, is abducted and molested, and grows up into a broken husband and father of iffy employment. Sean’s daughter is found dead the same night that Tim comes home covered in blood. Kevin is investigating the case. And events proceed predictably.

I bought the premise of “Mustic River,” but not the execution. The plot is one long, wriggling red herring, predicated on how everyone thinks Tim’s molestation must have messed him up, but no one having the wherewithal to ask him how. There’s a subplot about Kevin Bacon’s failed marriage – his estranged wife keeps calling him and staying on the line without talking – but I swear I could not see what it had to do with the movie or its themes.

For all the talk about how “The Return of the King” “had too many endings,” I thought the conclusion of “Mystic River” was fatal. There are several scenes that would make perfectly servicable endings, portraying the characters as they soak in the enormity of their decisions. But we keep cutting to long, obvious, wrapping-up conversations that don’t express anything meaninful. Call me a philistine, but I was underwhelmed by the whole package.

On the other hand, this movie tore my heart out. It’s as good a melodrama as I’ve ever seen – and it is a melodrama, because it toys with the brutal facts of Aileen Wuornos’ life and crimes and creates a sympathetic character. But I like that. This isn’t a movie about a woman who goes insane and starts ripping men apart. She doesn’t even have deep-rooted, de Palma reasons for killing. She kills a trick who’s tied her up and planning to rape her, and finds that she can justify killing more men in order to get the life she wants. As time goes on, she find new ways to justify it. This is completely realistic, which makes it even more pathetic and terrifying.

The scariest moments in “Monster” aren’t actually the murder scenes. I winced twice. After her second murder, Wuornos comes home in the car of the man she’s just killed and heads into the shower. Her girlfriend (a sad Christina Ricci) asks why the car’s there – she says she’s borrowing it from a friend, because they’re moving to an apartment. Then we see Wuornos toweling herself off and looking at the blood that covers her torso. She doesn’t blink. Five minutes later she’s making out with her girlfriend. My second jolt came when Wuornos was interviewing for a secretary job at a law firm, sans resume. The interviewer dresses her down, and Wuornos loses all compunction, curses, and humiliates herself. For some reason, this scene (part of a sequence when Wuornos is making a pitiful effort to go straight) reminded me of “Erin Brockovich” and how completely pedestrian and movie-of-the-week it was. It made “Monster” shine much brighter.

I’m sure some people will see this movie and feel manipulated, but I felt tortured and moved. Easily one of the 5 best movies to come out of 2003.

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