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Clint Eastwood is both an icon and a brand name as an actor; his influence as a director is far less pervasive. Eastwood’s depictions of strong, silent cowboys and loose-cannon cops have left a searing impression not only in genre films, but in every depiction of a roguish outsider that rolls off the studio assembly line. And his strongest work behind the camera—such unadorned character studies as Bird, Unforgiven, and the underrated A Perfect World—stems from his most commanding trait as an actor: quietness. When he keeps the direction out of sight and out of mind, the lack of artifice tends to reroute attention to the dexterous performances he coaxes from his casts.

In recent years, Eastwood’s focus on such workmanlike suspensers as Absolute Power, True Crime, and Blood Work has not played to his directorial strengths. Though he’s proved fully capable of helming more commercial fare, it’s a career segment that seems disposable, seen and just as quickly forgotten. But Mystic River suggests that dipping his toe in the world of tightly wound thrillers wasn’t entirely a waste of time. The film is a virtuosic, novelistically textured portrait of three childhood friends only thinly disguised as a murder mystery.

Mystic River opens in the ’70s, with the three kids, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave, playing hockey in the streets of the fictional working-class Boston neighborhood of East Buckingham. When they stop to write their names in a freshly poured square of cement, an imposing man in a black trench coat catches them and reads them the riot act. Dave is sufficiently cowed to get into the man’s car, supposedly to go tell his mother what he’s done. As the boy looks out the sedan’s back window, however, his moon face flushed with devastating pleading, it’s clear that he’s fallen into a trap. By the time he escapes from his captors, the damage is irreparable: Twenty-five years later, the perpetually morose Dave (Tim Robbins) still can’t confront what happened: “I don’t know who came out of that cellar,” he tells his wife, “but it sure as shit wasn’t Dave.”

These opening moments establish a tone that permeates the rest of the film. Mystic River is obsessed with determinism, how the aftereffects of discrete events can disintegrate relationships and ripple through a community. A generation later, no one has moved very far in physical or emotional space: The three childhood friends all still live in the neighborhood, but they don’t speak.

When his 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is murdered, however, Jimmy (Sean Penn) opens up to Sean (Kevin Bacon) and Dave as he can’t to anyone else, and his thoughts drift back to that afternoon and that car. If he had been the one taken, Jimmy reasons, he would have been so traumatized that he couldn’t have approached his first wife, and his daughter would never have been born. Jimmy doesn’t know that on the night of Katie’s murder, Dave came home with blood on his hands, telling a tale about being attacked by a mugger that his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), believes may be false. Sean, now a cop, is assigned to investigate the murder; he must juggle his childhood loyalties with the need to monitor Jimmy’s desire for revenge—and the shady associates willing to carry it out.

Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, Brian Helgeland’s screenplay is his finest since L.A. Confidential. But whereas that movie’s script presented sketched-in ciphers to populate a film-noir universe, the characters in Mystic River are fully formed and complex, both a part of and defined by the Boston streetscape. Eastwood makes a motif of the view from the spot where Dave was abducted: a row-house-lined street and, in the background, a bridge crossing the Mystic River. By continually revisiting the same streets and stoops—when Dave walks his son home from a baseball game, he passes the drain where countless balls from childhood games found a watery grave, plus that haunted spot in the cement—Helgeland and Eastwood enhance the film’s intimacy. And, as what happened the night of the murder is slowly unraveled, perspective shifts back and forth among the central triad, emphasizing their interconnectedness.

To Eastwood’s credit, Mystic River is a great actors’ movie. The director lets the story unspool without tricks or flourishes, lingering over conversations to allow ample time for the resonant portraits he creates to be absorbed. The touches he does add—notably his own haunting, elegiac score—punctuate the performances rather than distract from them. Only the investigative scenes with Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) seem to drag; Sean is the least developed of the three friends, and the subplot involving the estranged wife who calls and doesn’t speak

feels overobvious.

Robbins, who is often shown in shadow, delivers his best performance in years, communicating Dave’s confusion and dread with a sad, stooped shuffle and a quiet, apologetic tone. Harden channels the barely restrained fear and sadness that overcome Celeste as she confronts her husband’s potential culpability. Also excellent are Tom Guiry as Katie’s boyfriend and Laura Linney, who waits out a mostly window-dressing part as Jimmy’s wife to deliver a remarkable speech in the final act.

Penn, though, is the standout, turning in a nuanced depiction that makes his work in Dead Man Walking seem cartoonish by comparison. As Jimmy comes to grips with Katie’s murder, he displays a broad range of emotions but never loses an ounce of believability. When the events of a few days force him to revert from doting father to the thug of his past, there’s a subtle physical transformation as well. Under the guise of a pompadour and huge wraparound sunglasses, Penn transmogrifies into a mob boss, shades of Michael Corleone coloring the role. With his whole life subsumed by Katie’s death, he becomes obsessed with protecting the honor of his family—and ends up ignoring them. It’s clear that the aftereffects of this tragedy, like the one a quarter-century earlier, will be felt for generations.

Dopamine is less about people than an idea: What, and why, is love? When Rand (John Livingston) locks eyes with Sarah (Sabrina Lloyd) across a crowded bar, sparks fly, literally. An image of synapses firing, or cells dividing—something involving science—bursts onto the screen, then quickly disappears. When the picture snaps back, we’re left to focus on their fixed gaze as they puzzle over this spontaneous burst of energy: Is love purely chemical, or is there something deeper, more metaphysical, at work?

After he begins dating Sarah, commitment-shy computer geek Rand sublimates his fear by programming a cartoon bird named Koy Koy, who responds to his soothing voice commands—”When I’m lost, Koy Koy helps me,” he says pitifully. Sarah’s issues are no less transparent: She regrets giving her daughter up for adoption and works in an early-childhood learning center to help fill the void.

With the stage thoroughly set for the most dysfunctional cinematic coupling since Amélie met the guy who scrapes underneath photo booths, Rand and his computer buddies begin field-testing the virtual pet in Sarah’s classroom. Their Koy Koy discourse—he thinks the bird is a valuable tool for learning about relationships; she thinks interactions with real pets are more useful—provides a template for the predictable dialogue peppered throughout the screenplay by advertising veterans but filmmaking rookies Timothy Breitbach and director Mark Decena.

Their hypertight script, workshopped at the Sundance Institute’s filmmaker’s lab, purports to be about “the physical euphoria and giddiness” of love. But it constantly hammers at the material-vs.-spiritual dialectic, leaving no space for anything that resembles real, organic conversation between people with affection for one another. Each verbal exchange, every action and reaction, feels sprung from a synopsis of the characters’ motivations. Sarah stays awake at night furiously painting pictures of her long-lost daughter. While analyzing his feelings, Rand programs a virtual mate for Koy Koy.

Decena’s directorial flourishes ring just as hollow as his characterizations. Rote shots of dot-commers drinking coffee in fast motion, fog rolling over water, and blurry swing sets reek of faux artiness. And no amount of force-fed whimsy can make those recurrent synapse shots believable: When Rand and Sarah share the screen, there’s rarely any chemistry. Livingston, a dopier Ben Affleck, and Lloyd, perhaps best known as Natalie from the short-lived series Sports Night, do as much as they can with their one-note roles. But for the most part, it’s impossible for them to discover joy or rage or seething lust or anything else within their characters’ numbingly persistent behavioral patterns.

Decena didn’t essay too many scenes that represent the spontaneity and joy of new love, though perhaps he should have. The best attempt comes on a date at a museum, where a trick mirror joins Rand and Sarah’s faces, each small horizontal strip of his followed below by a parallel swath of hers. Besides providing an interesting visual, the mirror shot helps create the one scene that doesn’t feel forced: With the merger of goofy grins and rolling eyes gently suggesting the compromises and strangeness built in to any relationship, it doesn’t matter why or how they’re in love. But it’s the only time it’s clear that they are. CP