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Mystic River

(2003) *** 1/2 R
137 min. Warner Brothers. Director: Clint Eastwood. Cast: Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden.

By framing his latest film with black-and-white Warner Brothers logos, Clint Eastwood correctly implies that Mystic River is a classical film noir. Like Dennis Lehane's exceptional novel, Eastwood's film evinces a strong sense of place, almost in inverse proportion to a profoundly lost triptych of characters. Though the emotions at times take on an uncharacteristically operatic scope, the essence of this highly empathetic noir resides in its lived-in city streets, its world-wearied protagonists implicated in crimes, and its fatalistic navigation of a world of light and shadow.

As a murder mystery, Mystic River concerns itself with the untimely death of teenage Katie Markum. In the wake of the murder, three childhood friends awkwardly reconnect: Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), the dead girl's father; Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), a primary detective on the case; and Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), a suspect and witness to Katie's whereabouts on the night of the crime.

While the film is partly procedural, Eastwood remains scrupulously true to Lehane's raw and incisive characterization of three men in the throes of naked grief. As Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland depict in an efficient prologue--which makes commanding use of blackout scenes--childhood tragedy bonds Lehane's "sad-eyed Sinatras." All three feel, in some way, guilty by association for that decades-old traumatic event, and each reacts to the girl's present-day murder with an intense need to make good, to make sense out of the senseless.

Penn's magnificent performance radiates the unique hurt of a wounded father, expressed in unpredictable stress fractures of rage. Bacon's Sean suffers most from the page-to-screen translation, as he must vocalize--sometimes awkwardly--the brooding musings left unspoken in the novel's narrative; nevertheless, Bacon's sensitive work is commendable. The role of Dave--as performed by Robbins and as shot by Tom Stern--stylizes psychic distress. In body and face, Robbins slumps with the palpable weight of Catholic guilt and repressed trauma, while needy eyes suggest the unfinished and dangerous man who is an arrested child. At times, Robbins and Penn skate the edge of overindulgence, but daringly so.

Among the other characters, Laurence Fishburne stands out as Sean's laconic partner (though don't listen too closely to his wandering Bostonian dialect). Marcia Gay Harden gives Dave's wife--who's driven to distraction by her suspicions--convincingly nerve-jangled energy; with a minimum of screen time, Laura Linney brings frayed intensity to Jimmy's fiercely loyal wife. Tom Guiry, meanwhile, ably etches Katie's left-behind boyfriend Brendan Harris as a young man barely holding himself together, and screen veteran Eli Wallach turns in a sprightly cameo as a liquor store proprietor.

Eastwood helms the picture with a sure hand, though he narrowly misses the high water mark of his magnum opus, Unforgiven. In concert with veteran production designer Henry Bumstead, Eastwood plants crosses throughout the picture, reflecting the community's uneasy faith as well as a summary skepticism of the Catholic Church. The director makes dramatic use of light and shadow, turning faces into half-masks or enveloping them in blackness. In fact, Eastwood orchestrates numerous potent images, including the dark and emblematic river, Jimmy draping a funeral dress over his daughter's shrouded body and a doubling across time of a fateful car ride, seen through a rear windshield. Furthermore, Eastwood himself gets primary credit for scoring the film, with a gentle, supremely moody piano theme.

The film's few missteps are in the occasional arrhythmic transition, distractingly prominent product placement, or bit of stilted discourse. All the same, Helgeland soundly translates potentially unwieldy source material, relocating much of the novel's flavorful dialogue and maintaining its key scenes, like Dave's late-night nervous breakdown as John Carpenter's Vampires spits from a small-screen TV. For his part, Eastwood carries off a disconcerting and elegaic near-masterpiece of subjective morality among people--and a city--in painful transition.

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