"Mystic River" is a deeply ambiguous study of lifelong ties, moral accountability and the flukes of destiny. This adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2001 novel about old friends in Boston's working-class Irish neighborhood finds Clint Eastwood near the top of his directorial game with first-rate actors. Could be a class fall release for Warner Bros.

“Mystic River” is a complex, deeply ambiguous study of lifelong ties, moral accountability and the flukes of destiny. This full-bodied adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s involved and involving 2001 bestselling crime novel about old friends in Boston’s working-class Irish neighborhood finds Clint Eastwood near the top of his directorial game with a cast of first-rate actors. The dark, disturbing view of human nature and the relentless procession of tragic events will pose the main hurdle for public acceptance, but strong reviews, the director’s and author’s names, and vigorous marketing could put this over as a class fall release for Warner Bros.

Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland have followed Lehane’s lead in using a time-tested dramatic format — childhood pals who have ended up on different sides of the law — to examine themes regarding the wages of violence and crime that have been at the center of some of the director’s best pictures, including “Unforgiven” and “A Perfect World,” and to draw some equivocal characters in compelling shades of gray. The clear-eyed objectivity and alertness with which the film presents its drama and milieu call to mind Otto Preminger in his “Anatomy of a Murder” period.

Staged in classically coherent and straightforward style, narrative pivots on two traumatic events separated by about 30 years. While playing on the street, kids Sean Devine and Jimmy Markum stand fearfully by as their friend Dave is ordered into a car by two threatening guys posing as cops. Although he miraculously escapes and returns home some days later, Dave’s sexual abuse at the hands of the men has marked him for life.

Decades later, the three have grown apart. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has worked his way up to homicide detective, Dave (Tim Robbins) is a subdued fellow with a wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), son and patchy career, while Jimmy (Sean Penn) is a salt-of-the-earth former criminal and convict who looks to have reformed and is the proprietor of a local market, husband to a good woman, Annabeth (Laura Linney), and father of three girls.

One of his daughters, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is an attractive, vivacious 19-year-old who becomes an urban statistic when, after a night of carousing with two girlfriends and on the eve of eloping with a secret boyfriend, she is brutally murdered, her body hidden in a local park. Jimmy’s love for Katie was total, and he vows on her grave to catch the killer before the cops do.

Penn’s deeply emotional scenes surrounding the murder — anticipating the worst when he realizes Katie is missing, trying to get past police lines as the body is still being identified, keeping his emotions in check while being interrogated by Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) — represent prime thesping opportunities, and the intense actor makes the most of them by underplaying more than one might expect. Penn is sufficiently dominant to make the corked tension within Jimmy become the center of the picture.

Given the strange circumstances of the killing — Katie was both shot and beaten, and no plausible motives can be imagined — the search for a suspect is frustrating. Pic’s main narrative thread consists of a slow-motion race between Jimmy, who uses his thug in-laws, the aptly named Savage brothers, to track down neighborhood information, and Sean and Whitey, who are annoyed that Sean’s old friend is running his own parallel investigation.

Before long, however, everyone’s suspicions fall upon Dave, who arrived home hours after the murder took place with bloody injuries and unconvincing stories about how he got them. Fact that a second person was killed the same night in the vicinity raises further questions, and Dave’s expressions of insecurity and self-doubt lead a distraught Celeste to confess to Jimmy that she believes her husband killed Katie.

The fatal gears this confession sets in motion leads to a climax and aftermath fraught with terrible ironies, regret and loss, as well as a profound cautionary signal about that hallmark of Eastwood films, extra-legal justice.

Underlying the thick narrative, which scripter Helgeland has skillfully boiled down from Lehane’s nearly 500 pages, are psychological insights that often pivot on how the characters have, and haven’t, changed since childhood. Katie’s spilled blood awakens in Jimmy old behaviors he thought he had left behind. Sean acts as though he were still married, although his pregnant wife left months before and places silent phone calls to him. But the biggest head case is obviously Dave, haunted by his childhood molestation in ways that are just surfacing decades later.

Tale also offers peripheral observations about such other matters as the subtle status distinctions within the longtime Irish neighborhood, now being overtaken by gentrification, and unemphatic notations on generational and racial issues (no fuss at all is made over the change from the novel making the Whitey character black).

Eastwood approaches this narratively tangled and emotionally loaded material with calm confidence; in his 24th film as a director, he exerts an evenhanded control that puts the material’s many layers and assorted elements in satisfying perspective and balance, without any feeling of manipulation.

Perhaps because Eastwood has done similar scenes so many times before, and also because the investigative field remains relatively barren for much of the time, the police procedural interludes have a borderline routine feel, and pic’s widescreen compositions are not as sharp or forcefully framed as in some of the director’s previous pics.

Casting is immaculate. Penn is in top form as the reformed hood whose basic instincts overtake him. Robbins surprises with his vulnerability as an unusually inward character still bleeding from old wounds that will never heal. Bacon plays Sean rather like Eastwood himself might have done 30 years back, although Fishburne as his partner has little opportunity to lend anything beyond his considerable presence to a one-dimensional character. Harden notches up the anxiety level as it dawns on her what her husband might have done, while Linney economically conveys the strength of a wife who’s always there for her man when he needs her.

Eastwood’s “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” costar Eli Wallach is in for an unbilled cameo as a liquor store owner.

The director, who before has made song contributions to some of his pictures, this time composed the score, which is dominated by a swellingly dramatic main theme. Pic takes good advantage of locations in Boston, where all lensing was done.

Mystic River

Competing

Production

A Warner Bros. release presented in association with Village Roadshow and NPV Entertainment of a Malpaso production. Produced by Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt, Clint Eastwood. Executive producer, Bruce Berman. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen), Tom Stern; editor, Joel Cox; music, Eastwood; production designer, Henry Bumstead; art director, Jack G. Taylor Jr.; set designers, Adrian Gorton, Jann Engel; set decorator, Richard Goddard; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Walt Martin; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; assistant director, Robert Lorenz; casting, Phyllis Huffman. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, May 8, 2003. (In Cannes Film Festival -- competing.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 137 MIN.

With

Jimmy Markum - Sean Penn Dave Boyle - Tim Robbins Sean Devine - Kevin Bacon Whitey Powers - Laurence Fishburne Celeste Boyle - Marcia Gay Harden Annabeth Markum - Laura Linney Val Savage - Kevin Chapman Brendan Harris - Thomas Guiry Katie Markum - Emmy Rossum Silent Ray Harris - Spencer Treat Clark John O'Shea - Andrew Mackin Nick Savage - Adam Nelson Kevin Savage - Robert Wahlberg Esther Harris - Jenny O'Hara
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