Mystic River is named for a ribbon of water that ties off the blue-collar Boston neighborhood in which Clint Eastwood's magnificent movie is set. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn), Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), and Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) grew up on its banks, tight pals, and we see them first as kids playing street hockey and talking Red Sox. But then something happens -- men who pretend to be cops pull up in a car and drive Dave away. And four days later, when he escapes, childhood is over -- not only for the abducted boy, but also for the two who watched him go.
The past shapes the present as powerfully as the river itself shapes the emotional and physical landscape of Dennis Lehane's fine novel, and using a clean, slicing script by Brian Helgeland (an Oscar winner for ''L.A. Confidential''), Eastwood directs ''Mystic River'' with an invigorated grace and gravitas. This is a true American beauty of a movie, a tale of men and their bonds told by and for adults who value the old-fashioned Hollywood-studio notion of narrative. It's also a beaut of a chamber piece for the best of American acting, which, I'd like to think, cannot be disconnected from the movie's enduring, fashion-proof style of storytelling -- or from the director as architect. Let others meditate on Eastwood and his gallery of antiheroes and justice seekers; I'm more moved by the control and authority with which the director coaxed such deep, inspired readings from his cast -- expect Oscar nominations -- and the delicacy with which he sets the characters in their particular but universal world of hurt.
Jimmy, Dave, and Sean have long drifted apart when they are reconnected in their 30s by a new crime, the murder of Jimmy's oldest daughter; at its simplest, ''Mystic River'' is a classic whodunit. Dave has stayed close to the ground and, for all his lumbering height, lives folded up and hemmed in, married to fluttery, worried Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden, a breathtaking study in fearful, wifely distrust), with whom he has a young son. Dave looks like the kind of man who will never cross the Charlestown Bridge to the bigger city, and Robbins, in one of the great, hunkered-down performances of his career, bears Dave's crushing load of memory on beautifully sagging shoulders, framed by the camera in middle-distance shots that rarely allow Dave space or privacy.
Jimmy, married to Celeste's cousin Annabeth (Laura Linney, fierce as any Livia, ancient or modern), runs a corner grocery store that doesn't reflect his standing as a tough guy, local fixer, and former gang leader. Jimmy doesn't need to cross any bridge, because he's made his burg the world. And whenever Eastwood looks to the character, he spreads the landscape out long and horizontal, pinning Jimmy down on his big map of nowhere, but freeing Penn's huge, restless thespian energies to find suitable release. (Most of the crew, including invaluable production designer Henry Bumstead and cinematographer Tom Stern, are veterans of Team Eastwood.)
Bacon's Sean, meanwhile, has crossed the bridge -- at one point we actually see him in a noisy traffic snarl. He has become a police detective, working with a partner (Laurence Fishburne, generously recessive). But Sean's personal failures express themselves in pockets of silence -- as when his wife, who has left him, phones but doesn't say a word. To complement Bacon's embodiment of a sealed-up man, Eastwood likes to push in tight, almost crowding Bacon's full length out of the frame. (When the wife calls, we just see her silent, lipsticked mouth, so close are we to Sean's emotional muteness.)
''Mystic River'' is a murder mystery. It's a psychological study: How does childhood trauma shape adult lives? And right up the director's alley, the drama is also a study in gender treacheries -- as much about the women who were not there when one boy was hurt 25 years ago as about the men who are together again in the old neighborhood now, their wives and daughters unsafe or unreliable. Eastwood, who also wrote the resonant chordal theme with its deep ground bass, communicates as much with sound and camera movement as with words and performance, and there are moments when I felt myself on the banks of tears, stirred by the panorama of the vulnerable neighborhood by the water, or the way a corner grocery looks, exposed and flimsy, on an overcast day. At times, I could even convince myself that Eastwood directs our eyes up, down, and across like a grand genuflection, he's that much the composer of this wonderful American psalm.