Black waters

Violence and tragedy are churned up in rich and deep murder mystery

NO HOLDING BACK<br>The floodgates open wide when Jimmy (Sean Penn) learns of his daughter’s murder

The floodgates open wide when Jimmy (Sean Penn) learns of his daughter’s murder

Mystic River
Starring Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon & Laura Linney, Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Rated 5.0

Mystic River just may be Clint Eastwood’s greatest accomplishment as a director. But to call it a “Clint Eastwood film,” at least in the usual sense of that phrase, would be misleading.

Adroitly adapted by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) from Dennis Lahane’s best-selling crime novel, the film has assorted “Eastwoodian” ingredients—a murder mystery, crimes of aggravated cruelty, an impulse toward vigilante justice. But there’s no Dirty Harry here and nothing quite like the quasi-apocalyptic settling of accounts in many Eastwood westerns, let alone the tortured, anguished retribution of his fine, somber Unforgiven.

Instead, Mystic River is something really special—a crime story, yes, but one with an uncommonly deep-felt attention to character, the cumulative effect of which gradually boils over into something verging on classical tragedy in a distinctively American urban setting. Eastwood directs some key sequences with an inspired kind of gravity, and he gets very strong performances—and at least three exceptionally fine ones—out of an excellent cast.

The richly complicated story revolves around three guys from a blue-collar neighborhood in Boston—Sean (Kevin Bacon), who is a state policemen; Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con who now runs a small grocery store; and Dave (Tim Robbins), a somewhat befuddled guy who dotes on his small son. In childhood, each of them was present on the day when one of them (Dave) was abducted by a couple of child molesters posing as cops, and all three are haunted, variously, by that moment in their lives.

They are brought together again when Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter Katie is murdered. Sean and his partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) are the investigating officers; Dave, out of muddled circumstances, becomes a suspect; and Jimmy, raging with grief, begins to renew his underworld connections with an eye to conducting his own investigation. Meanwhile, Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) is increasingly fearful that her husband may be the killer.

The murder will be solved, but not before more than one character has acted decisively and devastatingly on mistaken assumptions. The plot gives us a tragic cycle of recurring violence, but the film’s tragic depth comes finally from three particularly memorable characterizations—Harden’s achingly haunted Celeste, Robbins’ evocation of a victim and pawn who is both scary and scared, and Penn’s Brandoesque Jimmy, a tough, proud man whose best and worst impulses become inextricably tangled.

And Laura Linney’s ferociously American variation on Lady Macbeth (as Jimmy’s fiercely devoted wife) puts the capper on it.