Since his directorial debut in 1971 with Play Misty for Me, Clint Eastwood has managed to convince a lot of otherwise discerning people that his plodding, juiceless movies—which manage to be simultaneously laid-back and heavy-handed—are the work of a daring auteur with a strong moral vision. I have a long way to go before I share (or even comprehend) the view that Eastwood is now, to paraphrase the program of the New York Film Festival, a titanic artist on par with Hemingway and Shakespeare. But his new film, Mystic River (Warner Bros.), in which he doesn't appear, is the first time his flat, deliberate approach actually enhances his material. Almost every Eastwood movie opens with a floating helicopter shot over a city or small town, but here that signature device has a strong connection with what the film is about: As the camera glides over the Mystic River toward Boston, you can practically see the word "Fate" superimposed over the dark waters. Eastwood is still heavy-handed, but the mood and tempo are perfect for this particular story: They suggest a certain tragic inevitability that flows grimly, relentlessly, toward us.
The film has been reverently adapted (by Brian Helgeland) from a 2001 book by Dennis Lehane, one of a new breed of urban noir writers who manage to tell you more about how cities work than many so-called literary novelists do. After a series of well-crafted, deeply felt but ultimately conventional detective thrillers set in Boston, Lehane took a swing at the moon in MysticRiver, a book that revolves around a murder investigation, but that veers from the procedural into something deeper and more open-ended. The spark came from Lehane's own childhood: He once got picked up by two plainclothes cops for street-fighting but realized later that he'd never seen their badges—they could have been anyone. In the prologue to Mystic River, set in 1975, three boys, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are writing their names in wet cement when two men claiming to be policemen approach. They order one of them—the less self-assured Dave—into the car, and in Lehane's nightmare revision of his own past, those men are not cops: They rape the boy for four days before he manages to escape. That's when the real story begins.
The bulk of MysticRiver (the book and the movie) is set 25 years later, in the Flats (a composite of several working-class neighborhoods north and south of Boston), where those three boys have evolved in dramatically different ways. Jimmy, the toughest of the trio, is an ex-con who has gone straight and owns a small neighborhood market, while Sean has moved in the opposite direction: He's a homicide detective. So far, so clichéd. The wild card is the rape victim, Dave, who's neither crooked nor straight; he is, as one observer puts it, "damaged goods." A loving dad and husband, he's haunted and unstable, as well as marginally employed, and neither Jimmy nor Sean can look at him without thinking, "What if it had been me who got in that car?" The book has all manner of clunky contrivances, but you can feel Lehane's excitement as he breaks out of pulp formulas and tests his new freedom. MysticRiver is finally about how that opening violation ripples into the present, deforming all the lives in this tight-knit, working-class community. It has the range of a classic tragedy.
Helgeland's script has its thick wads of exposition, as well as a few hammy speeches that stop the action cold. But he has done a sterling job of keeping Lehane's emotional beats in place, and Eastwood's measured pacing allows you to watch the strands of plot coalesce in agonizingly slow motion. The director wrote the score himself—or, at least, the melody (Lennie Niehaus orchestrated), which is built around a triad that's meant to suggest how the boys are both bound and driven apart by their terrible history. The mature trio is played by three major actors: Sean Penn (Jimmy), Tim Robbins (Dave), and Kevin Bacon (Sean).
What brings these characters back into one another's orbit is the brutal murder of Jimmy's exuberant 19-year-old daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), who's found shot and beaten to death after a night of bar-hopping with girlfriends. As fate (or Fate) would have it, the investigating detective is Sean: He and his partner, Whitey (Laurence Fishburne in a triumphant piece of colorblind casting), have to keep the volatile Jimmy and a pair of local hoods known as the Savage brothers (Kevin Chapman and Adam Nelson) from finding the killer before the police do. And the killer might be closer than they know. Dave watched Jimmy's daughter dance rhapsodically on a bar the night she was murdered—watched longingly. When he came home a few hours later to his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), he was covered in blood.
Eastwood has never shot anything with the sustained emotional power of the sequence in which Katie's body is found. It begins when Sean realizes that an abandoned, blood-soaked car belongs to Jimmy's daughter, at which point Jimmy—in another part of the Flats, watching his youngest daughter's first communion, from which Katie is mysteriously absent—turns slowly to stare at the door of the church, then at the police cars racing by. The sequence builds to an unbearable climax, shot from overhead, in which Jimmy pushes toward his daughter's corpse (splayed out in an old bear cage), screaming and weeping, barely held back by a line of policemen that seems too puny for this one anguished father. From the start Penn is playing the larger tragedy—the sense that somehow, for reasons he doesn't yet know, his own sins have led to his daughter's murder. For much of the film, Eastwood keeps Penn isolated in the frame, and the actor's stillness is pregnant and scary: Jimmy can't be fully himself until he's violent, and then, when he gives into his emotions, he hits notes of animal agony that haven't been heard since the young Brando. He's now the most towering actor of his generation.
The movie is a triumph of casting—and of Eastwood's habit of giving his actors (down to the smallest bit part) the room and time to strut their stuff. Bacon holds the formulaic detective plot together while also suggesting the subtle ways that Dave's kidnapping left him broken, too; and, as his harder-headed foil, Fishburne gives a beautifully tough and funny performance. Marcia Gay Harden is a miracle of wordless despair: Tremulous with loyalty at the start, she's quaking with guilt by the finale. As Jimmy's wife, Annabeth, Laura Linney has a Boston alewife accent that sticks a bit in one's ears, but her final scene—a Lady Macbeth number in which she powerfully induces her husband to shed his conscience—carries a ferocious charge. Only Tim Robbins' Dave threw me out of the movie. I could see him acting, and his high, droopy singsong reminded me variously of Charles Durning and Buddy Hackett. But I love the way he makes his great height a liability: He looks as if he wants to fold in on himself and dissolve.
Eastwood hits a lot of wrong notes, among them a shot of a child molester's ring that screams anti-Catholic sensationalism, and a long speech of Dave's about vampires that should have been edited with a stake through the heart. The biggest howler is the subplot involving Sean's estranged wife, who's in the habit of phoning him at significant times and refusing to speak. Eastwood photographs only the actress's mouth, which is bad enough. Worse is that, the mouth's a weird one, shaped like an octopus's.
Yet for all its missteps, MysticRiver gets the big things right: It turns you inside out with grief, and it builds to an act of vigilante murder that is nearly impossible to endure. There is an added piquancy: In the '60s and '70s, Eastwood helped to create the body-count genre, in which vigilante action became campy spectacle, stripped of consequences and denuded of emotion. Now, in MysticRiver, he makes death shocking and momentous; he has put the horror back. This is his finest film.