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Cinema Signal:

The Boston Stranglers

. "Mystic River"

Once again, a movie withholds vital information in order to pump up its dramatic level in the last act. This device may not be illegitimate, but it leaves one feeling they've been manipulated by a screenwriter with limited gifts. Discounting the negative aftertaste, however, director Clint Eastwood delivers a psychological thriller with considerable tone and artistry as it progresses toward that somewhat unsatisfactory resolution.

In a blue-collar section of Boston known as East Buckingham, three boys, Jimmy Markham, Dave Boyle and Sean Devine play in the streets. As they're inscribing their names in a street slab of wet cement -- a little bit of harmless vandalism -- a car stops, a burly man gets out sporting a set of handcuffs, and intimidates Dave into getting in his car. But it's not a police station Dave's brought to. It's a basement dungeon, where he's subjected to the sexual depravity of a group of perverts. He manages to escape after 4 days of torture but he'll never be the same.

The memory haunts him into adulthood where we find Dave (Tim Robbins) in a local bar admiring Jimmy Markham's (Sean Penn) fetching daughter Katie (very special Emmy Rossum) dancing sensually with her girlfriends on the bar. When he gets home to his wife much later, his dishevelment, wound on his abdomen and bloody hands shock his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) speechless. He explains that he had to beat up a man who attacked him, and might have killed him. This is an explanation that never quite comes to full acceptance by a dazed Celeste.

She checks the papers for the discovery of a dead body but finds no account of it. But, what does come to light and to the attention of law enforcement is the dead body of Katie, a heinous crime that brings Dave's boyhood chum Sean (Kevin Bacon) on the case as the homicide cop. He and partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) begin an earnest and comprehensive investigation seeking the killer of his old buddy's girl.

But his old buddy Jimmy (Sean Penn) has grown up with a rap sheet and some time in the pen... and a couple of his gang pals are still carrying out his wishes even though he's gone straight arrow as a convenience store owner. But the loss of his beloved daughter threatens to bend him back to his former ways when he sets out to wreak his own form of justice. The law has little to do with the form of revenge that will satisfy him. It's really a matter of who gets to the perp first.

The screenplay by Brian Helgeland (academy awarded for "L.A. Confidential") is drawn from the novel by Dennis Lehane and is rich with the detail of relationships and the complexities of the characters as they are affected by the crime, the coverups and the outcome. This might have been director Eastwood's best effort since "The Unforgiven" had it not rested on contrived misdirection, as mentioned above. It is, however, a notch better than the mess he made out of the exemplary crime novel, "Bloodwork."

Each and every member of the ensemble is at the top of their form, demanding they reach into deep resources. One gets the idea that a faithfulness to the calm but determined tone of the novel has been respected, giving us a community of players we can relate. We should appreciate the lack of exaggeration in a context that too often results in parody or stereotype. Its punch lands with the point, too, that a horrific experience in youth is a mental scar that doesn't dissipate through time. There's no such thing as an emotional oil change.

In a part that might have been eclipsed by the dark brilliance of the 3 leads, Laurence Fishburne is particularly praiseworthy for his tough, hard nose investigator who prevents his partner from making understandable emotional compromises in analyzing the growing body of evidence. Fishburne is convincing and impressive.

A compromise appears, though, in the visual part of the collaboration. As in many, if not most, of Eastwood's work, scenes are underlit. We get moments like the two cops in the car in which the driver is almost lost in sidelight while his partner sitting in the passenger seat is all but invisible, a voice in darkness, a shadow speaking. Does Eastwood love photographic obscurity or does he just deprive his cinematographer time to complete his work for the sake of the production budget? His Director of Photography, Tom Stern, knows which it is but is likely not telling. When permitted, Stern turns in a properly gritty and textured canvas to match the street-style of the neighborhood and the hideous crime that envelops it. All other technical credits are pro.

Eastwood, a prominent lover of jazz, along with composer Lennie Niehaus, created the soundtrack music, which tastefully underscores the theme of the piece without getting in its way.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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