Clint Eastwood returns to retribution and a semblance of form with this moody, involving thriller even if the stone-faced star/director is saddled with prosaic plotting and a portentous script.
Staying behind the camera, he again proves himself an excellent actor's director. He draws Sean Penn's best performance since Carlito's Way, as Jimmy, a storekeeper with a shady past who is gutted by grief when his teenage daughter is murdered.
City detective Sean (Kevin Bacon) investigates and suspicion lingers over their mutual childhood friend, Dave (Tim Robbins), whose youth was scarred by kidnapping and sexual abuse. He's now a married family man, but nonetheless locked in the past.
Adapted from Dennis Lehane's bestselling novel, the script asks whodunit and what should be done in return, as Jimmy plays neighbourhood God - given the chance to be judge, jury and executioner.
Just as Eastwood examined his iconic creation, The Man With No Name, in Unforgiven, so he explores the vigilantism of Dirty Harry in Mystic River, albeit in a low-key, leisurely way. There is no Magnum-toting pop hero here, just desperate, haggard humans coming to terms with death and the desire for vengeance.
It's all a little self-important, and doesn't quite grip as a character-driven suspenser. It slides by at a pace so stately it borders on sluggish. It's also interesting to note that, yet again, women get a rough deal in an Eastwood picture. As Jimmy's Mrs, Laura Linney has little more than a cameo, and while Marcia Gay Harden is impressive as Dave's anguished other half, her character is the only figure this ambiguous movie totally damns.
But the performances pull you through, or rather performance, for despite everyone's excellent work, it's Penn's heavy-lidded, dead-behind-the-eyes turn that overshadows all, carrying the weight, pain and misery of the world - and the picture.
Mystic River is released in UK cinemas on Friday 17th October 2003.