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Drama flows from ‘Mystic River’

Three men united by a shared past and a tragic present

With Clint Eastwood’s profoundly moving “Mystic River,” it’s as if the all the sturdy but generally forgettable movies he directed since “Unforgiven” never happened.

“Mystic River” weaves a rich study of complex characters and moral ambiguity rarely seen in today’s big studio films. The performances by Tim Robbins, Sean Penn and Marcia Gay Harden are among the year’s best, while Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne and Laura Linney provide excellent support.

Eastwood and his actors create a brooding drama whose events and interrelationships seem surreally improbable yet painfully authentic. The players evoke a palpable sense of community in this tale of a tightknit neighborhood sharing grief, anger and suspicion of outside authority in the aftermath of a young woman’s murder.

Unlike 1992’s “Unforgiven,” on which Eastwood did double duty as actor and director, “Mystic River” keeps Eastwood behind the camera, and the film probably is the better for it.

Eastwood’s performances in such recent self-directed movies as “Blood Work” and “Space Cowboys” have felt fatigued, while the dual role as actor-director has resulted in such sluggish post-“Unforgiven” flicks as “Absolute Power” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“Mystic River” allows him to focus on the craft, and when backed by a such a compelling story, the 73-year-old Eastwood demonstrates he still can be a masterful filmmaker.

Tormented souls
Adapted from Dennis Lehane’s novel — with a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, who also wrote Eastwood’s “Blood Work” script” — “Mystic River” traces the lives of three boyhood friends in a working-class section of Boston, who drift apart and are flung together again by events years later.

Tormented by memories of abduction and abuse as a child, Dave Boyle (Robbins) has grown into a shell of the man he might have been, doing odd jobs, drinking beer among neighborhood cronies and shuffling the streets with a downward gaze.

His old chums Jimmy Markum (Penn) and Sean Devine (Bacon) — witnesses to Dave’s abduction — have become polar opposites. Jimmy’s an ex-crime leader who’s now a stalwart shopkeeper in the neighborhood and a fiercely adoring husband and father. Sean’s a police detective with a wayward wife whose departure has sapped his vigor for anything but work.

The slaying of Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter tears the community apart. Jimmy and his wife (Linney) are met with an outpouring of goodhearted condolences from relatives and friends, including Dave and his wife, Celeste (Harden).

Sean and his partner (Fishburne) are assigned to the case, but intent on vigilante justice, Jimmy rounds up former hoodlum associates to carry out his own investigation.

Dave becomes a prime suspect, and emotional paralysis over his childhood trauma leaves him so conflicted he spins a web of conflicting alibis that heighten suspicion among the police as well as Jimmy and Celeste.

Eastwood captures fascinating nuances in the film’s three key character scenarios. Robbins and Harden combine for an eerie, heartbreaking portrait of an old married couple who would have ambled in comfortable befuddlement through the rest of their lives together had not blind chance exposed the wedges between them.

Penn’s Jimmy is a man who moves without repentance from his upright life back to a world outside the rules of decency and justice. His transformation from grieving to vengeful father, and finally to a man at ease with his questionable actions, is chilling.

Bacon and Fishburne present an old-married-couple relationship of their own, offering a multilayered rendering of longtime familiars with far greater depth than Hollywood usually bestows on police partners.

Eastwood, who won best-picture and director Academy Awards with “Unforgiven,” finally has crafted another Oscar-worthy film. “Mystic River” merits serious awards attention for Eastwood’s artfully understated direction, and come nominations time, Robbins, Penn and Harden belong among the front-runners.