[Screen It]

(2003) (Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon) (R)

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Drama: Three former childhood friends are reunited years later when one of their daughters is murdered, another is the investigating detective and the third may be a suspect.
Long ago, Jimmy Markum (SEAN PENN), Dave Boyle (TIM ROBBINS) and Sean Devine (KEVIN BACON) were best friends, hanging out and playing on the streets of Boston. Something bad then happened to Dave, an event that forever changed him and eventually sent all of them on their separate ways.

Now another event has occurred that brings them back together. To the horror of one-time hood and current convenience store owner Jimmy and his second wife, Annabeth (LAURA LINNEY), their 19-year-old daughter, Katie (EMMY ROSSUM), is found brutally murdered.

Sean and his Massachusetts State Police partner Whitey Powers (LAURENCE FISHBURNE) are the first detectives on the scene and set out to solve the case by interviewing various witnesses and potential suspects such as Katie's secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris (TOM GUIRY). As they do their job, Jimmy's criminal friends, the Savage Brothers (KEVIN CHAPMAN & ADAM NELSON), do their own sort of detective work, thug style.

And Dave's timid wife, Celeste (MARCIA GAY HARDEN), begins to question him and his behavior when he returns home on the night of the murder, covered in blood and claiming to have beaten off and possibly killed a mugger. As the events unfold and emotions rise to the boiling point, the three former friends are reunited in ways they never could have imagined.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
Although he's used various sorts of plots over the years in his numerous works, novelist Stephen King seems drawn to the ones dealing with friendships. That's especially true of those of the childhood variety where former friends are reunited by some sort of pivotal event. Author Dennis Lehane used the same in his novel, "Mystic River," but rather than some supernatural occurrence, it's a murder that serves as the catalytic reunion maker.

As adapted by Brian Helgeland ("Payback," "L.A. Confidential") and directed by Clint Eastwood ("Blood Work," "Space Cowboys"), the story now arrives on the big screen with the same name as the source novel. A bit long, slow and featuring an unnecessary and drawn-out denouement and a bad/misused score, the effort isn't without its share of problems. Yet, they're minor in number and don't individually or collectively undermine the overall effort that's certainly engaging and generally well-made and performed.

A character-driven murder mystery tale, the film actually features two pivotal events. Beyond the murder that reunites the now adult former friends, there's an earlier development - seen at the beginning of the film - that drives them apart. It also serves to complicate the second event by introducing doubt, suspicion and a potentially bad turn of events.

You see, on the same night that the 19-year-old daughter of one of the men is brutally murdered, his former childhood friend - who's never been the same since the earlier event - returns home covered in someone else's blood. As his wife begins to question what happened, the grieving father wants revenge, and the third friend investigates the murder with evidence and lies oozing forth, things progressively build toward the boiling point.

While the pace might be a bit slow for some, Eastwood and Helgeland use those plot elements rather well in getting us to care about the characters, wonder what the truth is (regarding the murder and earlier childhood scene) and how things will ultimately play out.

Although the setup seems a bit too simple at first and the one friend is so obviously guilty that you guess he can't be, the filmmakers thankfully introduce additional complications and developments that make the plot more complex and the ending more uncertain.

That's not to say that some viewers won't figure everything out before the finale or won't see some plot holes and developments that are a bit too convenient and/or coincidental. That latter element certainly needs a heaping dose of suspension of disbelief to prevent viewer disengagement, but for the most part, this is an engaging and morally ambiguous whodunit.

The film certainly benefits from a top-notch cast and good to terrific performances. Playing the three former friends are Sean Penn ("I Am Sam," "Sweet and Lowdown"), Kevin Bacon ("Trapped," "Hollow Man") and Tim Robbins ("Arlington Road," "The Shawshank Redemption"). Penn is fabulous in the part of the grieving and vengeful father, while Bacon is as solid as ever (the fact that he's the lead investigating detective in all of Boston is one of those convenient elements one must get around).

Robbins tackles the more difficult part playing a reserved, confused and generally screwed up adult who becomes the prime suspect. While I appreciate the effort and understand the complexity in pulling off the part and its various intricacies, I felt that perhaps he went a bit too far in playing up the characteristics. The result is an intriguing performance, but one that stands out a bit from the rest rather than feeling natural.

Supporting performances are solid from the likes of Laurence Fishburne ("Biker Boyz," the "Matrix" films) as the detective who questions the friends' past relationship affecting his partner's work, Marcia Gay Harden ("Pollock," "Space Cowboys") as a tentative, suspicious and somewhat shell-shocked wife and Laura Linney ("The Life of David Gale," "You Can Count on Me") in what turns out to be a chilling if surprising take on a supportive wife.

That sudden transformation as well as several concluding scenes do feel out of place, somewhat lessen the overall impact, and make the film feel longer than it needs to be. A few of them also appear to bungle some facts regarding character motivation and explanations regarding what's previously transpired.

I'm not sure if adherence to the source material (with which I'm not familiar), studio pressure, audience test scores or something else made Eastwood feel like those scenes where necessary, but they should have been omitted, along with the overbearing and manipulative score.

If not for those problems of varying degrees, this would have been a stellar, character-driven murder mystery. Nevertheless, it's still rather good and I like it even better now in hindsight than I did as it transpired. "Mystic River" rates as a 7 out of 10.

Reviewed October 1, 2003 / Posted October 8, 2003

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