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A Grief Observed 

In Mystic River, Jimmy Markum's grief is strangely beautiful. It twists his frame and hollows his eyes, escaping from his body in small, animal explosions. Life's been hard, but Jimmy's been harder. Now, with the murder of his favorite daughter, Markum's rage wrestles with the totality of loss. Like the bush that burned but was not consumed, Sean Penn portrays Markum as a violent vortex with a mesmerizing face.

Contrary to ecstatic reports, Mystic River is not a modern masterpiece. There are too many contrivances, too many unanswered questions. But there are also moments of great intelligence and power in director Clint Eastwood's screen adaptation of the Dennis Lehane bestseller, and most of them lie in Penn's pained, perfectly modulated performance as an ex-con determined to avenge the death of his child.

The story of three childhood friends from south Boston, Mystic River begins with a memory, one of those make-or-break moments that ruins one life and forever marks others. More than just a prologue, the opening scene sets the tone -- and the course -- of all that is to come. Markum, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) play in the street, when a man approaches. Pretending to be a policeman, he orders Dave into the car. Three days later, the sexually abused boy is brought home by real police. Fast forward to the present, where the three are barely friends, don't even really speak, until Markum's 19-year-old daughter turns up dead. Devine, now a detective, investigates; the damaged, erratic Boyle is his primary suspect. Everyone -- even Boyle's wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) -- believes he could have committed the crime.

Mystic River, however, is more than a simple whodunit. It's a moody rumination on violence and loss, a wicked game of truth and consequences. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) fashions an emotional, if not always cogent, epic, with sometimes stunning dialogue. We might not always understand, narratively, why characters behave the way they do, but the cast, which also includes the extraordinary Laura Linney and Laurence Fishburne, sells every inch of this film. Eastwood's generally unhurried, unimposing directorial style lends itself well to showcasing Penn's smoldering performance.

Perhaps it is only fitting that, in a movie about loss, there are missed opportunities -- as the suspicious Celeste, Harden overacts badly, Eastwood occasionally allows his technique to intrude too far into a scene, and his majestic, symphonic score is wholly unsuitable. As a portrait of one man's mourning, however, Mystic River resonates. -- Carlson

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