Anyone who knows greater Boston will recognize the neighborhood where "Mystic River" takes place.
It's a working-class community with nice old houses gone somewhat to seed, blue-collar men relaxing on cramped back porches or in their favorite pubs. The river itself rolls unnoticed past the everyday activities that give the district its mingled atmosphere of mythic timelessness and utter conventionality.
Not all that happens there is mundane, though, according to Clint Eastwood's new film. Alongside the pleasures and challenges of daily routine there are evils sadly similar to those of countless other urban areas.
The story begins innocuously, with three young boys carving their names in a block of wet sidewalk cement. A man with a police badge drives up, intimidates them over their prank, and forces one into his car. In a harrowing episode that Mr. Eastwood sensitively chooses to suggest rather than depict, the boy is held captive for days of sexual abuse before he finally escapes.
Flashing ahead a few decades, we meet the boys as grown men. One is a cop, another a shopkeeper, and the third - the one who was abducted - is a misfit, plagued by inner turbulence that even his wife and son know nothing about.
Although they've grown apart over the years, the men are drawn together when the shopkeeper's teen daughter is mysteriously murdered. Clues start pointing to Dave, the abuse victim, leading the policeman to suspect him and the shopkeeper to seek revenge.
"Mystic River" gains its great resonance from three factors. One is its leisurely pace, contrasting brilliantly with the too-frantic energy of many recent thrillers. The second is splendid acting by Sean Penn as the merchant, Kevin Bacon as the cop, Laurence Fishburne as his partner, Tim Robbins as Dave, and Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden as the central female characters in the story.
The third is Brian Helgeland's literate screenplay, based on Dennis Lehane's novel. This kind of quiet ambiguity, avoiding easy answers to complex human conflicts, is all too rare in American movies.
• Rated R for violence, vulgar language, and adult themes.