“Mystic River” isn’t inventive in its cinematography or even compelling in its much-lauded story. But the film is still beautiful because of its acting. Clint Eastwood directs Sean Penn and Tim Robbins to their best performances in years, with each actor turning in first-rate renditions of men with sordid, disturbing pasts that come boiling to the surface. Penn is particularly astounding in his role as Jimmy, a father whose daughter is murdered and who seeks vigilante justice at all costs. The part allows him to emote anger, anguish, pain and sorrow with convincing power. The only question is what Penn will be wearing to the Academy Awards.

Tim Robbins, playing Dave — the prime suspect in the murder case — performs equally well in his more subdued role. His character is meant to keep us guessing — did he in fact murder Jimmy’s daughter? How much of his alibi can we believe? What lurks beneath his bland expressions? Robbins surprises again and again as his character grows in complexity throughout the film. In one scene, he stumps the investigating police (portrayed in stereotypical but solid fashion by Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne) and reveals an intelligence we never knew existed. This makes his character even more interesting and suddenly opens up the potential answers to the question “What really happened?”

The major fault of the film is that it does not provide satisfying or even plausible answers to this question. Ultimately, the many loose ends the story develops — the same loose ends that keep us guessing and make the plot so engaging — get tied to the least interesting characters with the least established story lines. At the risk of giving away too much, let’s just say that the murder, Dave’s secret, Jimmy’s quest for justice and the police investigation all conclude with scenes of trite and disappointing exposition. The reservoir of rich emotion developed by Penn and Robbins goes untapped. If it weren’t for a final showdown between these two on the banks of the Mystic River, the ending would be a complete loss.

Perhaps something got lost in the script’s adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel, or perhaps Eastwood concentrated too much on the performances of his actors and not enough on the story they were performing. In either case, “Mystic River” peters out instead of exploding with the force its actors try so hard to project.

If the rest of the characters felt as real as Penn’s and Robbins’, the film would have succeeded brilliantly. “Mystic River” tries to depict the conflict between familial responsibilities and personal desires — a paradigm set by Francis Ford Coppola’s unsurpassable “The Godfather.” Coppola’s film succeeds because it takes the time to fully develop each character within the family and gives a sense of the complete patriarchal unit. “Mystic River” focuses on too few characters and leaves the world of the family disappointingly vague. The repercussions of characters’ actions seem entirely personal, and the film loses whatever greater significance those actions might have had in a more coherent universe.

The role of women in the film exemplifies this incompleteness. They exist solely to support the patriarchy. The wives go about soothing their husbands, saying, “hush, hush,” and nothing more. Jimmy’s rebellious daughter, with plans to elope to Vegas and leave the male-dominated world, pays dearly for her insubordination. This underrepresentation proves to be a further weakness in “Mystic River’s” mistake-ridden finale, since so much ends up depending on the female characters.

Penn and Robbins’ performances save “Mystic River” from being completely uncinematic. Watching two mature actors at the height of their careers and in full control of their talents is a pleasure in itself. Ultimately, there is no reason to put this story on film except to show a close-up on Penn’s face as he describes what it feels like to want to hold your daughter one last time but to know you can’t because she’s gone forever.

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