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Raging river

CLINT EASTWOOD'S MYSTIC RIVER, which opened last weekend to lavish critical praise, is a disturbing, captivating movie and easily Mr.

CLINT EASTWOOD'S MYSTIC RIVER, which opened last weekend to lavish critical praise, is a disturbing, captivating movie and easily Mr. Eastwood's best work behind the camera since his Oscar-winning anti-western Unforgiven. But Brian Helgeland's script, based on the Dennis Lehane novel, while admirably complex, is not quite as spotless as Mr. Eastwood's deft direction.

Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, and Kevin Bacon head an impressive cast, playing three former childhood friends from working-class south Boston. The film opens with a flashback to a game of street hockey that ends in horrible tragedy-an incident that defines every frame of film to follow. As two of the three boys look on, two men posing as cops kidnap the third, imprisoning and abusing him for four days.

As adults, the three friends have drifted apart, although all remain in Boston. Sean (Mr. Bacon) is now a homicide detective. Jimmy (Mr. Penn) has been on the other side of the law, but has apparently gone straight and is raising a family. Dave (Mr. Robbins), the one pulled into the car that terrible day, is doing his best to build a family too. He's married and has a son, but his experience has clearly left him "damaged goods."

It's yet another tragedy that kicks the film's plot into gear. Jimmy's oldest daughter, Katie, is found shot and beaten in a park not far from the old neighborhood. Sean is assigned to investigate the crime, and it happens that Dave is one of the last people to have seen Katie alive.

Like Unforgiven, Mystic River deals with the devastating effects of violence and the downward-spiraling cycle that it creates. It's clear that Dave was not the only one damaged by the kidnapping and abuse. All three men are suffering the consequences of that horrible act, and the rest of their lives are buried under its weight. Jimmy's rage and grief at his daughter's death can't lead to a good place, and the dread of a third act of destructive violence hangs over the story.

Characterization and emotion are at least as important in Mystic River as plot, which helps to mitigate some of the less successful contrivances of the story. More than unlikely coincidence, though, two problems dog the otherwise impressive script. The first is a confusing and unconvincing ending. There's a powerful scene close to the end, placing Sean and Jimmy alone in the middle of the street, which would have served well as the closing shot. But what comes after this seems to be unsupported by character development up to that point.

A more fundamental problem, though, is with the script's bigger themes. One act of violence often (although not always) leads to another, and both this film and Unforgiven deal with this idea in compelling ways. But the characters here are captive to their circumstances in a way that doesn't suggest any alternative. The concept of fate is so burdensome that it doesn't allow for the possibility that someone could experience such devastation and still survive-that there's some healthy and appropriate response to tragedy.

What's missing here is a willingness to dig below the acts of violence and deal with root causes. As a result, violence becomes a generic, malicious force that appears to exist and act outside of human agency.