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      Mystic River Review

      Mystic River poster

      Mystic River

      Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune

      Clint Eastwood's powerful new movie, "Mystic River," his best since "Unforgiven," takes us on a voyage almost to the end of the night. It's a shattering journey into darkness, taken by three Boston boys pulled at age 11 into one awful act of transgression, climaxing 25 years later, when an even more terrible crime reunites them.

      Based on the 2001 crime novel by Dennis Lehane, "Mystic River" is classic Eastwood, classic noir. If there is still some doubt about whether this one-time macho star is a world-class moviemaker, "Mystic River" should end the argument for good. One of the best American movies of the year, crisply well-crafted and beautifully acted, it's a psychological thriller whose knifelike insights into urban violence are honed with deadly skill and empathy by Eastwood and a consummate cast. Notably excluding Eastwood himself, that ensemble is headed by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon as the grown-up boys; Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney as two of their wives; and Laurence Fishburne as a cop on the case.

      The movie has a magisterial narrative grip. Eastwood first shows us Mystic River, a working-class Irish Catholic Boston neighborhood, in one of numerous overhead shots setting something like an authorial eye of God. Descending, we see the three boys - Jimmy Markum, Davey Boyle and Sean Devine - just before Davey is abducted in 1978 by two rough pedophiles masquerading as cops.

      From then on, as the Irish poet Yeats wrote, things fall apart and the center cannot hold. Even though Davey, imprisoned and raped in a cellar, escapes from his captors, it's implied that his life is forever damaged. And when we meet them again years later, cocky little Jimmy (Penn) has become a patriarchal ex-con and grocer-businessman, quiet Sean (Bacon) is a brusquely competent homicide detective, and hanger-on Dave (Robbins) is an inwardly tormented family man living off high school memories of brief baseball stardom.

      They are no longer really friends, even though Davey and Jimmy's wives are cousins. The barriers of class and job seem to have permanently separated them until Jimmy's daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum of "Apassionada") is found beaten and murdered in the local zoo/park. The investigating cops are Sean and his tough, phlegmatic partner, Whitey Powers (Fishburne).

      Almost immediately, the movie dangles a likely suspect. Angst-ridden former victim Dave saw Katie dancing seductively in a local bar the night of her murder. He returned home bloodied and wounded hours later, feeding his wife a suspicious tale of a street fight with a pedophile. Later, as we keep seeing Dave, shambling down the streets, muttering about boys taken by wolves, he certainly seems lost in a hell of either pain or guilt.

      There are other candidates, notably Jimmy's psychopathic in-laws, the Savage brothers, and Katie's secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris (Thomas Guiry). Enmity has long boiled between the Markums and Harrises, a family that includes slatternly mother Esther (Jenny O'Hara), absent father "Just Ray" Harris and Brendan's mute kid brother "Silent Ray" (Spender Treat Clark), who wanders the streets with skateboard pal John (Andrew Mackin), seeing everything.

      What follows is an anatomy of a neighborhood and a murder, its investigation and its consequences - a deeply layered detective thriller in which the solution is more terrifying than the mystery.

      Not since "Unforgiven" has director Eastwood had a cast or story as good as this one. Though he's absent from the acting ensemble, we feel his presence in every frame - in the crystal clarity with which the story unspools and the rich interweave of buried emotion. The fact that Penn, Robbins, Bacon and Fishburne are not only brilliant actors but gifted movie directors themselves probably helps them mesh into this flawless, selfless ensemble.

      "Mystic River" is full of virtuoso acting moments: Penn's tearless crying jag as he rails to Dave about his inability to avenge Katie, the wary looks and glances with which Robbins reveals and conceals Dave's dark secrets, Harden's panicky crackdowns, the terse cop badinage between Bacon and Fishburne, the blood-freezing final vigilante scene, and Linney's dark, scary Sunday soliloquy. But we never for a moment sense any of these superb actors grandstanding or playing at the expense of the others.

      "Mystic River " is a gripping murder mystery with fair clues, devious red herrings and a surprise ending. It's a realistic drama about a community in the throes of change, teetering on moral disintegration. But because of the film's greater realism, we never get that comforting kicker most murder mysteries offer us at the end: a sense of the moral order restored after a holiday in chaos. If life is a river, and crime and hate are undertows dragging us down to chaos, then "Mystic River" is one of the prime recent maps charting that dangerous territory.

      Eastwood has made fine movies before without using himself as star, notably the 1988 jazz bio masterpiece "Bird " and the underrated 1997 true-crime drama "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." But he seems even more comfortable here, happy to pass the baton to his younger cast.

      They respond magnificently. At the last Cannes Film Festival, in fact, I thought president Patrice Chereau's jury erred in giving a shared best actor prize to Muzaffer Ozdemir and the late Mehmet Emin Toprak of "Distant." Memorable as both were, that prize rightly belonged to Penn, Robbins and Bacon of "Mystic River" - or, at the very least, to Penn. As boys-turned-men facing loss of innocence and bloody murder, these three great actors, in this great movie thriller, rip up the neighborhood and tear at your heart.

      "Mystic River"

      Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane; photographed by Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox; production designed by Henry Bumstead; music by Eastwood; produced by Eastwood, Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt. A Warner Bros. release; opened Wednesday, Oct. 8. Running time: 2:17. MPAA rating: R (language, violence, sexual themes).

      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

      Looney - Eli Wallach

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