Mystic River review

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True Crime. Space Cowboys. Blood Work. Films by a pensioner director that bloody well feel like it. Clint Eastwood is finished, more suited to idling behind a Zimmerframe than a camera.

Or so we thought. But cast your mind back to the dim, distant '80s, when the man who gifted the world with The Outlaw, Josey Wales, ran a directorial gauntlet littered with banana skins. For every good film there was a serving of banal, indolent crap: Firefox, Sudden Impact, Heartbreak Ridge. Clint's helming career seemed to be juddering with its first death throes. Then came Unforgiven.

The moral being, never write a cinema legend off. Do so, and you just know he'll turn round and make a film like Mystic River: - acute, compact, compelling. The kind of movie that could only have been made by a hungry young buck with everything to prove; never by a craggy 73-year-old with a personal fortune and chicken-wing arms.

Based on Dennis Lehane's labyrinthine novel, Mystic River is a tense whodunnit threaded through a complex character study. It opens with three boys, Jimmy, Sean and Dave, knocking about their Boston neighbourhood. Two `cops' pull up and tell Dave to get in the car. Four days later he escapes...

Thirty years on, all three have stayed local but drifted out of touch. Jimmy's (Sean Penn) done time and now runs a grocery store. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has crossed to the other side, becoming a cop. And Dave (Tim Robbins)... Well, Dave's head is still trapped in the dark, dank basement where he spent four horrific days being raped repeatedly. It's a tragedy that pushed the trio apart and it's a tragedy that pulls them together once more - - the brutal murder of Jimmy's 17-year-old daughter.

As much a film about themes - - fate, grief, friendship - - as a police procedural thriller, it would be easy to misjudge the balance and flail between two stools. Focus too much on the characters and your narrative hook is left to dangle forlornly; blithely skip from clue to clue and you have just another Hollywood suspenser: slick, taut but emotionally dead.

In contrast, Brian Helgeland's script and Eastwood's controlled direction strike just the right balance, giving the actors room to work - - Penn's brimming rage is terrifying, his pain heartbreaking - yet always stoking the forward momentum. And whereas, say, Robert Altman would have delighted in leaving everything hanging, Eastwood builds with assurance towards a satisfying climax. Satisfying, but not simplistic, the finale swirling with murky morals, a brief epilogue adding a note of ambiguity.

In fact, it's only the sidelining of the women that allows an element of frustration to creep into this thoughtful adaptation, the impressive Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden playing wives languishing at home. This complaint aside, Mystic River is irrefutable proof that Hollywood's premier OAP can still flex those muscles.

Not quite vintage Clint but skirting round the ballpark, this textured murder mystery is a real return to form. Strongly acted, strongly directed and strongly recommended.

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The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, New Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Jack Shepherd. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.