I am utterly mystified by the overwhelmingly positive reviews of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, which has been called a "historic achievement" and compared to Greek tragedy. The critics have clearly responded to the ambitions of Brian Helgeland's script (adapted from Dennis Lehane's novel) and Eastwood's direction rather than to what's on the screen: Mystic River is the drabbest, most monotonously solemn and yet ungainly "masterpiece" imaginable. The movie has especially been praised for getting the feel of the neighborhood in which the action takes place, but there's not a soul in it who doesn't trudge around as if aware of the impressive tale being told. (Ice Cube's variety show classic Friday (1995) has an infinitely more detailed sense of neighborhood life, with its patchwork of pleasures and disasters.) The story doesn't make much sense but the moviemaking is so flatfooted it hardly matters.
I don't know what exactly triggered critics to rate this movie so highly but I do know that I haven't read a sensible analysis of the narrative, and without that you can't assess its pretensions to tragedy. (Stephanie Zacharek's piece on Salon sees Eastwood's limitations as a moviemaker and makes the best case for his sensitivity to the material, but still wildly overrates the experience of the movie.) This means, of course, that there's no way to attack the movie's pretensions except by giving the story away: so this will be a review in the form of a post-mortem (i.e., all spoilers).
In a prologue set in 1975 three Irish-American boys are writing their names in wet cement in a working-class section of Boston. Two pedophiles pretending to be cops take Dave, the gawkiest, weakest-appearing among them, away in their car, supposedly to tell his mother about this act of vandalism. Instead they molest him for four days until he manages to escape. We then see the three boys grown up: Jimmy (Sean Penn) is an ex-con who owns a corner grocery store and dotes on the oldest of his three daughters; Dave (Tim Robbins) is a shambling near-wreck, who tries to instill more confidence in his small son than he ever had; Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective whose pregnant wife has walked out on him but continues to call him, though she can't bring herself to say anything when he answers. The men are brought into close contact again for the first time since childhood when Jimmy's favorite daughter Katie is found murdered.
The night of the murder Dave comes home with a slash across his belly and blood on his hands. His creepmouse wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) accepts his story of having murdered a mugger in self-defense and cleans up the evidence. The audience knows that Dave saw Katie dancing on a local bartop with her girlfriends and the only reason we don't think he must have killed her is because that would be too obvious. But Dave keeps changing the story of how his hands got torn up and he seems to be undergoing a crisis remembering his escape from his rapists. He cannot, however, explain what he's feeling and so is kind of scary. Eventually Celeste becomes so frightened she moves out and confides her fears to Jimmy. Jimmy has the Savage Brothers, two local thugs who take orders from him, drive Dave out to a riverfront bar for drinks. When Jimmy shows up, wearing black gloves, he scares a confession out of Dave by saying that if Dave will admit what he did he'll let him live.