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Great Shots: “Mystic River”

Great Shots: “Mystic River” (photo)

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Some shots call attention to their greatness. They’re incredibly long, or feature onscreen choreography that is impossibly complex, or the camera makes a movement that should be physically impossible. But a shot needn’t be showy to be great. All it needs to do is show us something beyond the simple facts of the scene. For a perfect example, examine one seemingly simple-looking shot in the middle of a series of equally simple-looking shots during a dialogue exchange between two characters in the 2003 Clint Eastwood film “Mystic River.”

The characters are Jimmy, played by Sean Penn, and Dave, played by Tim Robbins. This scene occurs about 45 minutes into the film. Jimmy is grieving over the shocking murder of his daughter. Dave and his wife, who is Jimmy’s wife’s cousin, have come to lend their support. As the scene begins, Dave sneaks away from the crowd to smoke a cigarette outside.


Dave’s just about to light up when he’s surprised and scared by Jimmy. He thought he was alone.


Dave is deeply uncomfortable, but Jimmy asks him to keep him company for a minute. Reluctantly, Dave agrees. As he sits and the men begin to talk, the frame is essentially the same one as the one that earlier revealed Penn in the scene.


Jimmy notices Dave’s hand is bruised and asks what happened to it. He claims that he hurt it helping a buddy move some furniture. Eastwood cuts to a shot of Robbins as he explains the injury.


Next comes the Great Shot. When Eastwood cuts back to Jimmy after Dave’s explanation, cinematographer Tom Stern has moved the camera down to reframe the two characters. Now Dave’s in the extreme left foreground, and only his midsection is visible. His injured hand rests on his right leg, and his lit cigarette hangs hidden between his legs. Though it’s tough to see in a still screengrab, cigarette smoke wafts up and away from the unseen cigarette.


So why is this shot so good? Because it speaks, quietly but powerfully, to the subtext of this scene. Throughout his conversation with Jimmy, Dave is uncomfortable. Why? When he tells Jimmy that he hurt his hand moving furniture, Jimmy seems to accept it at face value. But the audience knows Dave is lying. In reality, he came home on the night Jimmy’s daughter was murdered covered in blood. He’d claimed at the time that he’d been mugged and fought back, injuring or maybe even killing the man in self-defense. But the next day, there’s no mention of the man who attacked Dave in the paper. Dave’s wife (along with the audience) suspects he’s lying. Could he have killed Jimmy’s daughter?

After Eastwood cuts to the Great Shot, Dave and Jimmy talk about their wives and the simple pleasure of sitting on the porch and all the food in the house that’s going to spoil. But the framing tells us to focus our attention not on their conversation but on that injured hand. The smoke also presents two different visual metaphor. It turns that hand into a potential smoking gun in the mystery of Jimmy’s daughter’s murder. And it’s sitting right under his nose! As the scene continues we fixate on it: will Jimmy ask more or will he buy Dave’s story?

Meanwhile, Dave is thinking the exact same thing. Plus, the way that Robbins holds the cigarette between his legs makes the smoke appear like it’s coming from the seat underneath him, evoking the idea that Dave feels like he’s on the hot seat, worried about people discovering what he’d done on the night of his daughter’s murder. All at once we’re the detective, eager to learn the truth, and the suspect, worried about covering it up.

The camera cuts closer to Penn for an tearful monologue about his relationship with his daughter. His performance is remarkable. But I must admit, when I think about his speech, I can’t remember any of its specifics. I always think of that hand, smoldering away. A secret, burning out in the open and deep inside, hidden from view.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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