Picks and Pans Review: Mystic River

updated 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/13/2003 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laura Linney, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne

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Upon hearing that the badly beaten body of a 19-year-old missing girl has been positively identified, a veteran detective at the crime scene looks over at the victim's father, who's anxiously awaiting news, and mutters, "He's in for a world of hurt." So is nearly everyone in this outstanding drama, which hauntingly reveals how pain is too often part of living, violence has ruinous consequences, and some cuts go too deep ever to heal. Looking for an eloquently complex film aimed squarely at grown-ups? Mystic River is it.

In a working-class neighborhood in Boston, the lives of three old friends—Jimmy (Penn), an ex-con now running a corner store; Sean (Bacon), a police detective; and Dave (Robbins), an underachiever—intersect after Jimmy's daughter is murdered. Sean's resultant investigation dredges up dark memories of the pivotal moment in their childhood when Dave was coerced into climbing into a car with two adult male strangers while Jimmy and Sean stood by helplessly. What happened that day haunts and influences the trio forever.

With River, Clint Eastwood has directed his finest film, aided greatly by screenwriter Brian Helgeland's deft adaptation of Dennis Lehane's 2001 novel. Eastwood's notorious no-muss, no-fuss style shows in the rough look of a few exterior scenes, but there's no faulting the performances he elicits from a powerhouse cast. Penn is a brilliant mix of anguish and intensity, Bacon is knife-sharp as a cool professional afraid to let himself feel, and Robbins, possibly the best of all, is shattering as a broken man fast disintegrating. Also excellent are Harden as Dave's conscience-plagued wife, Linney as Jimmy's too loving spouse (her penultimate scene is a knockout) and Fishburne as Sean's savvy partner. (R)

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