They say that the most important part of any movie is the writer. In this case, that's true, but there's more than one of them. Dennis Lehane wrote the terrific novel, and Brian Helgeland continues to work wonders with the adaptation process. He's the man who took the unwieldy James Ellroy book L.A. Confidential and whittled it down to Curtis Hanson's excellent movie. Now he's done the same thing with Lehane's 400-page novel about crimes and their consequences on the streets of a fictional blue-collar neighborhood in and around Boston, right near where the titular body of water flows.

The story is a grim one. It starts off innocently enough, with three young boys playing in the city streets, though quickly adding a sense of menace when the first adults show up. And as unfolding events prove, they are bad men, men whose actions will lead to future bad events.

Then suddenly, with only a couple of creative visual clues, the boys become men, each fighting inner demons but for different reasons.

Jimmy (Sean Penn, who will likely be one of those five faces being photographed for reactions as next year's Oscar winner for best actor is announced) is an ex-con who has gone straight, but whose life has just been shattered by the murder of his daughter. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is the investigating officer who can't get over the fact that his wife has just up and left him. Dave (Tim Robbins) is a possible suspect, and someone who is still haunted by what went on with those bad men all those years ago.

While the story appears to be a whodunit, the reason it sticks out among other films in this genre is that the story goes far beyond the attempted solving of a murder. It turns into a series of character studies of these men -- and of some of the women and children in their lives. The murder just happens to be in the middle of it all.

Penn has brought his craft to the point where he scarcely has to speak to let you know what he's thinking. In several great wordless sequences, he reveals the hardness and danger of his character. Bacon understates his part, showing off a study in frustrated control. Robbins portrays a broken man who looks lost -- and has probably looked like this most of his life. He doesn't walk; he lumbers around in a fog.

Sean's absent wife is referred to in a few unnarrated camera shots, her face hidden. But the wives of Jimmy and Dave are front and center. Marcia Gay Harden is Celeste (poor, sad Dave's wife), who realizes that Dave has done something wrong, but can't -- or doesn't want to -- figure out what. She wears a world of hurt on her face and displays it in her body language. Linney, though a bit underused, is solid as Jimmy's caring wife; unfortunately, she's the only member of the cast who can't quite figure out the difficult Boston accent. Hers is forced, and sometimes slips away.

This is a story where things go wrong for people and then get worse. Families are crumbling, even as the old neighborhood is being gentrified. Everyone drinks too much; many of the characters smoke too much. Erratic behavior leads to suspicion. Despite the crackling script, this could all be very unpleasant, but under Eastwood's sure direction, it's mesmerizing. And little sparks of humor sure help. One notable scene of levity involves a liquor store owner recalling a robbery from many year ago. He's played by Eli Wallach, who appeared as Ramirez (the Ugly) opposite Eastwood's Blondie (the Good) in - you guessed it -- The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. (It's too bad Lee Van Cleef died; he would've made a great villainous cameo.)

Eastwood shows off another side of his talent -- and adds to the list of musical contributions he's made to eight earlier films -- by composing the score for Mystic River. Most of it effectively and quietly moves the mood and story along, only getting in the way two or three times with excessive grandiosity.

The script expertly comes together at the end by first making things very complex, then allowing for closure. But the highlight is that Mystic River then goes on to leave a little something for the characters and the viewers to continue thinking about. The final frames are both haunting and satisfying.

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