In Dennis Lehane’s powerful 2001 novel, Mystic River, three friends from a close-knit, working-class Boston neighborhood are marked for life by childhood trauma. Though Lehane is known as a crime writer, the book has larger novelistic ambitions. Depending on how you read it, Mystic River is a wistful tale of the unintended consequences of a human tragedy, a harrowing vision of the triumph of evil, or a heartfelt dissection of the cruelty with which communities create and maintain outcasts. It is also a story of how vigilantes are made, and for that reason it’s easy to imagine the attraction the book held for Clint Eastwood. Notwithstanding his rebirth in the last decade as an elder statesman of socially conscious moviemaking, Eastwood remains more in thrall than he’d likely admit to the Hobbesian ethos of the Westerns and cop movies that have built his career. His is a deeply reactionary, not to say jaundiced, view of society as inherently irredeemable, unless it be by craggy individualists bearing arms.

Eastwood’s articulate charm and gift for knowing self-deprecation have brought him a growing reputation as an intellectual (he winds the ordinarily skeptical Terry Gross around his pinkie every time he appears on Fresh Air), even though his politics and aesthetics differ from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s more in style than in substance. The orgiastic burst of gunfire that footnoted Unforgiven, one of two outstanding films Eastwood made in the ’90s (the other was A Perfect World), gave the lie to his newfound qualms about violence, and paved the way for his ambivalent pseudo-critiques of brute force in Absolute Power, True Crime and Blood Work. Other than in the entertaining Space Cowboys, Eastwood’s self-mockery is less a mature ironic rethinking of the stiff-lipped American hero than a form of self-regard, a tasty hors d’oeuvre designed to soften us up for the reiteration of red-blooded manhood as the key to saving the world from its ugly self. No matter how many “thoughtful” movies Eastwood makes, that egotistical messianism is his passion, and remains the secret of his success.

Still, at 73 years old, even Eastwood seems to have realized he’s too old for onscreen machismo. With Mystic River, he’s been wise enough both to remove himself as an actor and to search out stronger material than he’s worked with in a while. In any case, Eastwood’s official status as a screen legend earns every movie he makes the kid-glove treatment — Mystic River was received at Cannes this year with the usual breathy reverence, in part, no doubt, because of its restrained portrayal of the two crimes that frame the movie, both of which unfold mostly offscreen. In the opening scene, three small boys write their names in the fast-drying cement of a Boston sidewalk. By the time one of them has reluctantly climbed into a car driven by two burly men claiming to be policemen, their characters have been sketched: Wildcat Jimmy Markum (his surname inexplicably changed from Lehane’s Marcus) and his friend Sean Devine, a cautious kid from a more prosperous, upper-working-class family, refuse to get into the car. Their pathetically eager-to-please acolyte, Dave Boyle, meekly submits, only to return home several days later, where he’s branded as damaged goods.

The action now skips forward to the present, where the three, now grown men, are fulfilling destinies shaped by that one event. Following the death of his first wife, ex-convict Jimmy (Sean Penn) has gone straight for the sake of his teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) and the new family he has formed with his firebrand second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney). As she prepares to elope to Vegas with her boyfriend, Brendan (Tom Guiry), Katie is brutally murdered, and Dave (nicely underplayed by Tim Robbins), who limps through life sustained only by his love for his young son and his softhearted wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), returns home in the early hours of the morning drenched in blood. The chain between the estranged former friends is completed when Sean (Kevin Bacon) — a cop whose wife has left him for the reason wives leave cops in movies, because he is married to his work and his partner (here Whitey, played by Laurence Fishburne) — is assigned to investigate Katie’s death.

As a whodunit, Lehane’s novel is clever enough, and like all good crime novelists, he tarries lovingly over character, history and place, evoking not just a plot but a hermetic world. Armed with a respectful screenplay by Brian Helgeland, Eastwood tags along obediently. Mystic River is suitably atmospheric: Henry Bumstead’s lovely blue-green production design perfectly captures proletarian Boston, with its smoky Irish bars and its wood-frame triple-deckers spilling onto narrow sidewalks. Where Lehane’s novel seethes with emotionally charged subtext, Eastwood’s workmanlike direction feels static — fatally tasteful, embalmed in gravitas — while his sporadic efforts at dramatic heightening come off as vulgar cliché: A brutal beating segues into blinding white light; an anguished talking head is portentously framed in black. Lehane clearly loves the strong, loyal women who inhabit his novel along with the emotionally attenuated men who depend upon them without in any way understanding what drives them. Eastwood, for all the famed breadth of his romantic experience, has never managed to put a female character worth knowing on the screen — and don’t talk to me about Meryl Streep. Even his recent movies tend to nod in the direction of a rote feminism without making a dent in his division of the female gender into scheming vixens and youthful nymphs whose mission in life is to jump his aging bones. For Mystic River, Eastwood has cast two of the most capable actresses working today, but neither Linney, a quietly versatile actress who can rise above being miscast as a loudmouth, nor Harden, as the fragile Celeste, ever really makes it off the page.

Lehane treats the three boyhood friends with equal mercy and empathy as he evokes the distinctions within the working classes that lead to different fates — the gray, no-exit dullness of the lumpen life as Dave and Jimmy live it, set against the small but significant avenues of upward mobility that lift boys like Sean up and away from their origins. But only one of these men really interests Eastwood, and only one brings the movie, however briefly, to life. It’s not Dave — abject, defeated Dave, a victim born and made. Nor is it straight-ahead Sean, though Bacon plays him with the taut, laconic offhandedness of an Eastwood hero, a man of few words and fewer visible emotions. It is, of course, Jimmy, the coiled spring (Penn, who can do this sort of thing in his sleep, plays him to perfection) who, for all his efforts to be recognized as upstanding citizen of the year, fairly bursts with rage and impulse. Jimmy, who wants to run the neighborhood his way. Jimmy, who sits tight, biding his time for a chance to take the law into his own hands. “Sometimes I think all three of us got into that car,” Sean murmurs sadly when that distant childhood tragedy has worked its dreadful logic. When, at the Columbus Day parade that ends the movie, Sean cocks an imaginary gun at Jimmy, Jimmy merely grins — the wolfish grin of a vigilante, of a man on his way to becoming Dirty Harry. Jimmy is a sad and scary man, but there is a part of Eastwood that seems to enjoy him.

MYSTIC RIVER | Directed by CLINT EASTWOOD | Written by BRIAN HELGELAND, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane | Produced by ROBERT LORENZ, JUDIE G. HOYT and EASTWOOD | Released by Warner Bros. Pictures | Citywide

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