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Mystic River

True crime

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Katie is the apple of her daddy's eye. So when she's shot dead one night, it hits their working-class Boston neighborhood like an earthquake. Katie's father, Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), craves revenge, and he'll flout the law to get it. And the lead cop on the case is a state police detective named Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon), a childhood buddy of Jimmy's who left the rough drab streets of Buckingham Flats years ago.

Then there's another old buddy of Jimmy and Sean's: Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who one day when they were 10 or so climbed into a car with two strangers claiming to be cops and, though he came back alive, was never the same again. Messed-up Dave seems harmless enough. But slowly and inexorably, both Sean's official investigation and Jimmy's illicit one begin to point toward the half-forgotten childhood pal whom a fallen world chewed up and spit out.

Director Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the Dennis Lehane novel is a tough-minded, deeply sorrowful drama of a kind Hollywood doesn't churn out too often. Lean despite its 140 minutes, it's built like a police thriller but has substantial enough psychological undercurrents, and intriguing enough themes, to keep you thinking for hours afterward.

One scene captures a moment that reflects how Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland play with notions of guilt and innocence, and family and community secrecy. Dave, though hiding his involvement in some violent incident the night of the murder, decides to confess that he saw Katie in a bar before she died. He tells Jimmy what he thinks Jimmy wants to hear: "She looked happy." But unbeknownst to Dave, Jimmy has just learned that his beloved first-born -- about whom he thought he knew everything -- was out partying because she was about to elope to Las Vegas with a neighbor kid whom Jimmy despises. "Happy" indeed.

Under Eastwood's smart, incisive direction, the rock-solid cast includes Laurence Fishburne and Laura Linney in supporting roles. But while Marcia Gay Harden stands out as Dave's long-suffering wife, Mystic River inevitably bends around its three leads. Robbins is effectively cast as Dave, the brooding loner whose wife and son can't heal the deep scars of his childhood trauma. Bacon gives a thoughtful performance as a cop whose estranged wife phones him regularly but never speaks; ascetically thin, he's in stark contrast to the bluff, beefy and tattooed Penn, who's characteristically volcanic as a seemingly regular guy with a seedy, half-secret past of his own.

Almost mythically grand in scope, Mystic River is puzzling in some particular. The climactic monologue, for instance, is spoken by a character we've barely gotten to know. Perhaps, though, her voice is meant as that of Jimmy's corroded conscience, whispering in his ear about loyalty, silence and the utter primacy of one's own peace of mind.

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