Directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurence Fishburne and Laura Linney.

It hasn't been easy for Clint Eastwood fans the last few years. One adaptation of a doorstop thriller has followed another with less to admire in each - and all so dreary that you could forgive yourself a cry every time 'Unforgiven' came on TV. 'Absolute Power', 'Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil' and 'True Crime' all came and went before he hit rock bottom with last year's 'Blood Work', a whodunit so awful it worked better as a comedy. It's never going to be easy forgetting that line of letdowns, but Eastwood has made amends here, turning in a film with Oscar nominations (wins maybe) stamped all over it and delivering one of Sean Penn's best performances.

Based on Dennis Lehane's bestseller, 'Mystic River' begins by showing how the childhoods of Boston friends Jimmy (Penn), Sean (Bacon) and Dave (Robbins) are destroyed in varying degrees at age 11. Playing in their neighbourhood, they stop to carve their names in wet cement, with Dave only getting his name half-finished before a car arrives. The driver flashes a police badge and grills Jimmy and Sean about where they live before turning his attentions to the softer, shyer Dave. He tells the boy to take him to his mother but when Dave gets into the car, the horror dawns that the inquisitor and his passenger aren't police officers.

Fast forward 25 years and the three are still in the same neighbourhood but don't see each other and live very different lives. The deeply troubled Dave can't hold down a steady job and has a strained relationship with wife Celeste (Harden). Jimmy has done a stretch for robbery, losing his first wife while inside, and now runs a grocery store with his second, Annabeth (Linney). Sean's marriage has just fallen apart although careerwise, he's fared the best of the three by becoming a homicide detective. He is then pulled back into the lives of the other two when Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter is found murdered. And in their tight knit community along the Mystic River everyone knows that the killer isn't a stranger and that Jimmy won't be the one to wait for the police to find him.

Framed like a Shakespearean tragedy, this slow but engrossing ensemble piece looks at how evil keeps on living and how people live with it. 'Mystic River' gives Eastwood his best cast since 'Unforgiven' and whatever the deficiencies of Brian Helgeland's script, the performances more than compensate. While Bacon and Robbins are strong, Penn's turn as the ball of rage and pain overshadows everyone. As Jimmy peels away the realities of his daughter's life, and it becomes apparent she was an adult with her own plans, so the need to make someone pay corrodes his mind. Bacon's detective tries to keep him and his heavies on a leash but when suspicion shifts to Dave, so begins a spiral of events that has as much to do with the men's pasts as the tragedy of the present.

This is one of those rare recent occasions where you can say that an Eastwood film should have been longer. Having balanced the murder hunt with Jimmy's unravelling so well, he rushes the ending. Dave's fate spirals far too quickly and adds to the feeling of a character who wasn't done justice; Jimmy's wife crops up with a speech out of nowhere and a gesture between two of the characters, which has far more resonance in the book, could be throwaway to anyone who hasn't read it. Ultimately, they're the difference between a good story and one of the best this year.

Despite those shortcomings, 'Mystic River' gives you far more to cry than whinge about. It's a film worth queuing for - and you haven't been able to say that about anything with Clint's name on it in quite a while.

Harry Guerin