MYSTIC RIVER Eastwood loves the cheese.

Mystic River

dir. Eastwood

Opens Fri Oct 17

Various Theaters

The question, friends, is not whether Clint Eastwood is a great director. That debate should have been settled long ago, by anyone who paid attention to Unforgiven, A Perfect World, and The Bridges of Madison County. The question that persists is: How can a great director like Clint Eastwood turn in such shoddy, shallow garbage as Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The Rookie, and last year's indefensible Blood Work as often as he does? The answer may be contained in Eastwood's latest work, Mystic River, a film that has been garnering rave reviews for its sober treatment of Eastwood's favorite subject, male violence. The movie--thanks largely to the work of a very impressive cast, including Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Tim Robbins, Marcia Gay Harden, Laura Linney, and Laurence Fishburne--is a compelling experience. But all the passionate performances in Hollywood can't cover over the fact that Mystic River's source material, like almost all Eastwood pictures of the past 10 years, is a supermarket-caliber novel. Therein lies the Eastwood dilemma.

I've long been under the impression that while great books seem impossible to adapt to the screen, mediocre ones often make the best films--witness The Bridges of Madison County, a thin slice of divorce porn lit. that Eastwood rendered into a profoundly emotional piece of cinema. Unfortunately, not all crappy books are thus redeemable. Mystic River (which, in fairness, I haven't read) appears to be one of those. The story involves a group of three friends whose Boston childhoods were interrupted when one of them was kidnapped and molested. All grown up now, they are reunited when one of their daughters is murdered. Through a none-too-elaborate series of circumstances, the father (Sean Penn) becomes convinced that the killer is his own friend (Tim Robbins), the one who was snatched as a boy. Fortunately, the cop in charge of the investigation is the third friend (Kevin Bacon).

You may be able to guess where this all leads. It's to Eastwood's credit that he mines the clichés and conveniences for emotional resonance. Still, you can't help wondering who the hell forgot to tell him that for all the "inexorability" and "meditation" of its violence, Mystic River feels desperately contrived. Whether Eastwood the artist has some deep understanding of the nature of violence remains unclear. What is certain is that he knows how to make a movie, even a dumb one, well worth watching. I only wish someone would send him some better books.