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Odd Man Odd: Laurence Fishburne is the only character not tied to the old neighborhood ways of vengeance in 'Mystic River.'

Into the Mystic

Clint Eastwood's version of Dennis Lahane's haunting novel 'Mystic River' is all wet

By Richard von Busack

CLINT EASTWOOD'S meat-and-potatoes quality as a director is right for a picture like Unforgiven. Still, Eastwood is constitutionally blind to depths in trickier material, as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil demonstrates. And his new movie, Mystic River, is based on that uncommon thing: a subtle bestseller. Author Dennis Lehane's Southie metaphysics provides the nerves running through the meat of a crime drama. Eastwood handles the mystery well enough. But Mystic River plays out as a dour film--not great but greatly self-serious, simplified by Eastwood to the point where it comes across mostly as a downbeat argument for more therapy for child sex-abuse victims. Three boys were playing on a sidewalk in an Irish-Boston neighborhood near the Mystic River. One of them was stolen by child molesters. In the present, we revisit the three: Jimmy (Sean Penn), an ex-con running a convenience store, his hard-working life softened by his pretty young daughter. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has grown up to be a police detective, embittered by an unresolved separation from his wife. As for Dave (Tim Robbins), victim of the perverts, he is now married with a young son. The murder of Jimmy's daughter--a murder that Jimmy stands ready to avenge in the old neighborhood style--unearths half-forgotten sins of the past.

If fine acting means that you can barely recognize an actor, Robbins deserves some note for being so crumbled his mother wouldn't know him. Robbins goes slack in the mouth, like Chazz Palminteri, and he seems to be missing some of his bones. A hint of rage in his ordinary bearing would have helped make the film's twist credible. Nevertheless, Robbins suggests a man who's gone through the unspeakable--that he's dummied up with shame. Thus he is closest to the heart of Lehane's novel; his numbness makes Penn's raging all the more tiresome.

Penn has never seemed more Oscar-or-die than here; his foot stomps on the tremolo pedal. While Penn's fanciers see him as the heir to emotion-packed actors like Brando and Dean, his range is more reedy, more narrow. He has been as terrific as supporting screwups, but the mercurial youth has become a really monotonous adult actor. Eastwood lets Penn rake the heavens, Richard Harris style.

Surprisingly, it's Laurence Fishburne who steals the picture, as Sean's partner. Maybe it's the fact that he's the only one not swimming through a layer of Catholic guilt as thick as Boston clam chowder. The justice-loving viewers may ask why Fishburne's character didn't take over the investigation; his instincts are always right. He has no debt to the old neighborhood, to those old vengeful ways that Eastwood--it's clear--has a sneaking admiration for.

Mystic River (R; 137 min.), directed by Clint Eastwood, written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, photographed by Tom Stern and starring Sean Penn and Laurence Fishburne, opens Oct. 15.

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From the October 9-15, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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