If Sean Penn isn't the finest actor working today, "Mystic River" sure makes it difficult to name an alternative. Like a calloused hand slipping into a well-worn leather glove, Penn eases into the role of Jimmy Markum, the Boston shopkeep and vigilante crusader at the heart of director Clint Eastwood's haunting modern tragedy. It's a performance high in a career that's already enjoyed more than its share.
As adapted from the book by Dennis Lehane, "Mystic River" takes place in the aftermath of a childhood horror. The young Jimmy and his pal Sean Devine watched helplessly as a third friend, Dave Boyle, was spirited away in a car driven by two men who announced themselves as cops. In reality, they were anything but, and Dave endured several days of unimaginable abuse (which the movie depicts no more than is absolutely necessary) before he was able to make his escape.
Years later, Dave (Tim Robbins) has become a walking zombie, a husband and father brought low by the memory of his long-ago imprisonment. To varying degrees, the friends have gone their separate ways: Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a state policeman recently abandoned by his pregnant wife; and Jimmy has survived an intervening brush with infamy to focus on the homelier task of keeping his teenaged daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) away from a suitor (Tom Guiry) who doesn't meet his standards.
The trio's fraying ties are strengthened in all the wrong ways when Jimmy's beloved daughter is taken from him in a moment of inexplicable violence. Sean is on the case, but official justice isn't swift enough for Jimmy, who teams up with a group of local toughs to find her murderer and exact revenge. One lead points in a direction all involved would rather avoid: On the night of Katie's death, the perennially disoriented Dave came home soaked in blood. And he also appears to be the last person who saw her alive.
Aside from a few plot threads that go underexamined in Brian Helgeland's ("L.A. Confidential") adapted screenplay, the film moves relentlessly to a place where will and calamity converge. Penn is simply magnetic in his sorrow. His face riven with experience lines and his swept-back hair graying at the temples, he even looks a bit like a younger Eastwood himself. The actor's pitch-perfect anguish -- a sustained howl of pained fury -- motors this unerringly realistic film, raising the doings in a humble Boston neighborhood to a Shakespearean level of loss.
Watching Penn vindicate the term "emote" leaves no question that violence is a toxic substance that ruins the life of anyone it touches. Somebody should tie Quentin Tarantino down, "Clockwork Orange"-style, and make him watch this film over and over. Your own options are both simpler and a lot less traumatic.