Dir: Clint Eastwood. US. 2003. 137 mins

Anyone seeking lessons in the graceful art of the selfless auteur need look no further than Clint Eastwood. The producer, director and composer on Mystic River, Eastwood serves the story rather than indulges his ego and creates the framework for a fine ensemble cast led by a blistering Sean Penn performance. Carrying palpable echoes of his Oscar-winning epic Unforgiven, this is a measured, masterful statement on the evil that men do and the inescapable legacy of violence. Manna from heaven in a barren Competition field at Cannes, this brooding, mature thriller represents Eastwood's most substantial and fully realised work in almost a decade. Strong critical enthusiasm should make this a worldwide autumn hit and a potential early Oscar candidate with Penn a clear Best Actor contender and further nominations not out of the question.

After creating some of the definitive westerns of the past three decades, Eastwood has shown a marked attraction to the thriller genre in recent years but Absolute Power (1997), True Crime (1999) and Blood Work (2002) are minor genre potboilers compared to the rich themes and dark undercurrents of moral ambiguity in Brian Helgeland's adaptation of the Dennis Lehane bestseller. An economical prologue reveals a childhood incident that will scar three friends for life. Playing in the streets of their neighbourhood, Jimmy, Sean and Dave are stopped by a policeman who chides them for their misbehaviour and orders Dave into his car. The child meekly obeys and is driven off. The officer is bogus and Dave only manages to escape his clutches after four days of captivity and unimaginable abuse.

The friends are reunited years later when Jimmy's (Penn) beloved teenage daughter Katie (Rossum) is found brutally murdered the same night that Dave Robbins) returns home late unable to convincingly explain his injured, bloody hand and distressed state. As Jimmy nurses his grief and hungers for revenge, Sean (Bacon) is assigned to the murder case with his partner Whitey (Fishburne). The investigation becomes the vehicle that reveals the failings and flaws in all of them, the ability we have to think the worst of those we know the best and the way one moment in time can poison everything.

Understated and unobtrusive, Eastwood's direction weaves together the differing narrative elements, finding room to build and explore the characters whilst always nudging the story a little further towards its conclusion. Location filming in Boston adds considerably to the texture as do the atmospheric compositions of cinematographer Tom Stern and Eastwood's own highly accomplished musical score which was recorded with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Eastwood has always been a sympathetic director of other actors - Gene Hackman won an Oscar for Unforgiven, Meryl Streep was Oscar-nominated for The Bridges Of Madison County. Here, he has assembled a flawless ensemble and all have key scenes that establish their characters and let them make their mark. Laura Linney as Jimmy's wife Annabeth has some chilling, Lady Macbeth-like moments as she offers unconditional support to her husband. Marcia Gay Harden captures the emotional wear and tear on Dave's wife Celeste as she begins to lose herself in the nightmare of unfolding events. Bacon and Fishburne are saddled with more conventional roles but Robbins is a wounded bear of a man, docile and damaged who has spent his whole adult life seeking to do the right thing. Topping them all is Penn who convinces as both dangerous, ex-con and doting father, a man whose ideal of a better life is at constant war with his ruthless nature. He is the conflicted, ambiguous heart of the story and remains both riveting and entirely believable whether its the horrified look in his eyes as he learns of his daughter's death or the cold, resolute calm he brings to his self-appointed roles of judge, jury and executioner. It is a performance that underlines once again why Penn is one of the most respected actors of his generation and should help propel Mystic River towards solid commercial success in all territories.

Prod co: Malpaso
Int'l Distrib: Warner Bros
Prods: Robert Lorenz, Judie G. Hoyt, Eastwood
Exec prod: Bruce Berman
Scr: Brian Helgeland based on the novel by Dennis Lehane
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Prod des: Henry Bumstead
Ed: Joel Coex
Music: Eastwood
Main cast: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fisburne, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, Emmy Rossum.