Mystic River 

(R) 4 stars

(R) 4 stars
Director Clint Eastwood’s powerful new tragedy, Mystic River, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, opens with an aerial shot of a weathered neighborhood. The year happens to be 1975 and the setting is Boston, but it could be anytime, anywhere. Three boys take turns writing their names in some wet cement on the sidewalk. Jimmy Markum goes first, scrawling his first name, and Sean Devine follows, but Dave Boyle gets interrupted when a car pulls up.
The older of the two men in the sedan flashes his badge and tears into the boys over their mild vandalism. Dave, the one caught in the act, is ordered into the car for a trip a couple of streets over to his mom’s place and, presumably, more yelling. When Jimmy and Sean report what happened to their families, it is learned that the men were not cops, but sexual predators. Everything changes after that. Twenty-five years later, Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) carry on. Dave has a wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), and a child, but any resemblance to a routine life ends there. Staring at a vampire movie on TV late one night, he compares himself to one of the undead — a creature that walks and talks like a human, but is forever different, unclean, from the sexual assault of his youth. Following a stint in prison for theft, tough-as-nails Jimmy now runs a corner grocery. His first wife died while he was in jail, further hardening him, but their child, 19-year-old Katie (Emmy Rossum), and his scrappy new wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), keep him balanced. Sean (Kevin Bacon), meanwhile, is now a state police officer (as is mandatory in any story involving friends-since-boyhood and crime). He glowers a lot, possibly because his estranged wife keeps calling, not speaking, then hanging up. Luckily, his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne), has a good sense of humor and can lighten the mood a little. Tragedy strikes again when Jimmy’s daughter Katie is found dead by the river, shot and beaten. Because her body was left in a state park, Sean and Whitey become part of the investigation. Jimmy, grieving intensely, gets in touch with a couple of notorious local toughs and launches his own investigation. Who could have done such a thing? Could it be Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry), Katie’s boyfriend? And what about Dave, who came home that night with bloody clothes and a cut on his hand, telling Celeste that he was mugged and beat his attacker, possibly to death? There are too many coincidences in Mystic River and Kevin Bacon doesn’t get as much to work with as his co-stars. That’s about all that is wrong with the film. Eastwood directs with restraint and integrity — his movies reflect his character. He recognizes that, while the film contains a murder mystery, it is really a study of innocence destroyed, of melancholy, of short and long-term grief, of vengeance and of violence as infection. The tone is mournful, but alert, aided by exceptional camera work by Tom Stern and editing by Joel Cox. Eastwood wrote the music. The screenplay, by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), doles out information a nugget at a time, tightly wrapped around character development. Only in the final minutes is the viewer hit with the full impact of the goings-on. While the entire cast is excellent, there are standouts. Both Sean Penn and Tim Robbins play men who are at once sympathetic and scary. Both fully inhabit their characters, from their accents to their gait, without ever being showy about it. Both are utterly convincing, but Penn gets more to do and shows, once again, that he is the finest actor of his generation. Of the supporting cast, Laurence Fishburne provides a welcome reminder that there is life, and even humor, outside the neighborhood. Laura Linney shades her character nicely, particularly in the last act, and Marcia Gay Harden is wonderful as a woman whose love and loyalty has been battered by fear. Mystic River makes a powerful statement about the chains of violence. It will haunt you.

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