From the Archives – “Mystic River,” Reviewed: Time and Punishment.

Note: I’m off to Boston this weekend for a quick vacation, and when I think of Boston I think of Kane’s Donuts and film adaptations of Dennis Lehane books. Here’s a review I wrote in 2003.

Sean Penn (center) in "Mystic River." (Warner Bros.)

Sean Penn (center) in “Mystic River.” (Warner Bros.)

Clint Eastwood’s directorial career, technically only 32 years old (beginning with Play Misty for Me in 1971), has some very old bones. His signature style – economical camera work, thoughtful pauses, metronomic pacing – has long befit the septuagenarian he only recently became. Of course he’s done his best work since hitting retirement age: Eastwood’s direction has been waiting for his body to catch up.

Mystic River (rated R), a noted improvement over his recent journeyman efforts (Absolute Power, True Crime), is a good example of how that style can work. Staying behind the scenes this time allowed Eastwood to concentrate on the long-fermented emotions of Dennis Lehane’s wrenching 2001 novel. It’s a film for actors, not movie stars: Eastwood’s iconic glare would be out of place on screen, but he makes a powerful contribution just the same.

Set in working-class Boston, Mystic River (painstakingly adapted by Brian Helgeland) deals with a trio of boyhood friends who encounter a trauma that dogs each of them well into adulthood. Eleven-year-olds Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are playing curbside when a car pulls up; a guy – he could be a cop – takes Dave into “custody,” and the boy disappears for four harrowing days.

A quarter century later, each man still deals with that incident – and for Jimmy and Sean, the question of what if they had gotten into that car? – differently. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a state police detective abandoned by his wife and trapped by his straight-arrow leanings while Dave (Tim Robbins), a shell of a man, barely connects with his family. Only ex-con-turned-grocer Jimmy (Sean Penn) seems content – until the morning his 19-year-old daughter misses church, and is later found shot and beaten to death.

The murder reunites the men: Sean investigates, Jimmy grieves (and swears revenge on those responsible), and Dave has some explaining to do – like, how did he get those bruises on his hand the night the girl was killed? But the mystery is secondary to a probing examination of how these men deal with their pain; how their families are kept on the outside looking in; and how their sins – even those simply visited upon them – have the power to irreparably taint their futures.

The film isn’t perfect: Eastwood’s deliberate direction nicely mimics the investigative plodding but suffocates the drama, and Helgeland’s screenplay, overly reverential of Lehane’s novel, features too many highly literate speeches that are show-stoppers in the worst sense. But the acting across the board is very fine (look for Penn to snag an Oscar nomination) in this Hollywood film that actually has something to say. We should be grateful Eastwood decided to play Mystic for us.