Movies are such an immediate medium that our evaluations of them are tied almost inextricably to the experience of watching them. Very rarely do I feel one way about a film at its end, then feel an entirely different way a few hours later. Yet that’s exactly what happened when I encountered the latest movie directed by Clint Eastwood.

I was entirely swept up in Mystic River–enthralled, gripped, impressed–during the two and a quarter hours I spent watching it. Coming out, I told friends that I liked the film very much, apart from some still unfocused reservations about its final scenes. As soon as I woke up the next morning, however, I started thinking about the movie, and by the time I got out of bed (it was Saturday, there was no hurry) my earlier regard for Eastwood’s dark crime drama had crumbled away, a sand castle of near-certainty dissolving in a tide of doubts and misgivings.

Does that sharp change of mind negate any value the movie might have? Obviously not. At the very least, Mystic River offers a fascinating lesson in how compelling subject matter and strengths in direction, acting and mood can disguise flaws in a film’s conception and writing. Besides pointing us back to Eastwood’s previous work for the sources of these relative pluses and minuses, the film also reminds us that any movie which aims for profundity must, of necessity, stand up to reflection.

Based on a best-selling novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River is set in motion by two crimes which occur three decades apart. In a working-class Boston neighborhood in the 1970s, three 11-year-old boys–Jimmy, Sean and Dave–are writing their names in fresh concrete when a black sedan pulls up. A man gets out, flashes a badge, and orders Dave into the car. We instantly sense that something’s dreadfully wrong; only later do we learn that two child molesters held the boy captive for four terrible days before he finally managed to escape.

Cut to the present. Jimmy (Sean Penn) is now a reformed criminal and hot-tempered but law-abiding shopkeeper with three daughters. He is still friends with Dave (Tim Robbins), whose nervous manner seems to betray the lingering effects of his childhood ordeal. One night, Dave comes home covered in blood and tells his wife (Marcia Gay Harden) that he may have killed a mugger who tried to rob him. The same night, Jimmy’s teenage daughter fails to come home, and is later found brutally beaten and shot to death near her empty car.

The murder’s investigation falls to Sean (Kevin Bacon), who has not remained as close to his childhood friends as they have to each other. For everyone, though, the aftermath of the girl’s murder is horrendous. Jimmy, devastated and blind with fury, seems to believe that finding the murderer is his job, and instructs a couple of thuggish associates to conduct their own investigation. As much as this threatens to disrupt the police investigation, and perhaps to spark the fires of vigilantism, it’s also the instinctive reaction of a man overwhelmed by pain and grief.

The darkness and strength of those emotions, and the reactions to them, give the movie its initial power, which is considerable. American movies today very seldom deal in tragedy or extreme psychic pain–last year’s The Hours, a very different film than this in many ways, was a commendable recent exception–and Mystic River limns the distress of a tight-knit blue-collar community with extraordinary force and conviction.

In doing so, the film places itself in the tradition of tough-minded, character-driven dramatic realism that has been the American cinema’s most characteristic–and, arguably, most noble–mode of the last half-century. This form, however, now appears on its way into the history books, overtaken by the demands of action and spectacle, and that’s one reason I felt a great deal of sympathy for Mystic River. It’s hard to imagine a 30-year-old director making a movie so rooted in place and in the pain of ordinary people. Clint Eastwood, at age 72, still can and does make such movies, and it’s impossible not to admire both the ambitions and the skills he represents.

His abilities result in a movie with captivating surface virtues: a tense and grave atmosphere that envelops the tale’s suspenseful unfolding; a stylistic approach that’s sure-handed and eloquently direct; and an array of first-rate performances, especially from the three leads. While Penn’s work exudes his familiar hot-button bravado, Kevin Bacon’s cop offers an unusual, finely etched study in obliquely motivated reserve. Most revelatory of all, Tim Robbins gives a striking performance as the damaged, haunted Dave. Eastwood also gets sharp work out of Harden and Laura Linney, who plays Jimmy’s wife, as well as a rather perfunctory turn from Laurence Fishburne as Bacon’s cop partner.

The cracks begin to appear in this handsome facade when you look closely at the film’s ambitions. Eastwood’s career, as both director and actor, has been firmly grounded in genre films, especially westerns, action films and crime dramas. Mystic River, however, isn’t simply a crime drama. Not unlike Eastwood’s vastly overrated Unforgiven, it’s a film that in a thousand subtle ways (in its scope, in tone, even in its title) announces its intention to transcend the rudiments of genre to give us something more, something, let us say, in the realm of art.

Fine. But accomplishing that, in my view, means doing two things that in retrospect the movie signally fails to do. First, its ultimate meaning needs to emerge from a very seamless and organic deployment of genre mechanics, rather than being bound to cliched or (worse) clumsily executed plot contrivances. Second, that meaning must also offer something truly substantial, not just a gesture towards substance.

Looking back, there are numerous dramatic threads that one’s mind can pull and see the whole fabric of Mystic River unravel. Here’s one: Kevin Bacon’s girlfriend. For much of the movie we never see her face. The cop gets cryptic phone calls and we get the sense, perhaps, of a hurtful, ruptured relationship at the fringes of his life. Is this handled smoothly, evocatively, meaningfully? On the contrary, it’s handled very crudely, in a way that’s at once pointlessly opaque and confusing.

We encounter even more difficulty, though, if we ask why this character is even in the movie (and no, “because she’s in the book” is not a good answer). Unlike the wives of Jimmy and Dave, she plays no role in the central story. Is she there to assure us that Sean is a regular (if somewhat screwed-up) guy with his own messy personal life? Perhaps, in part. But my sense is that she’s there mainly as an awkward, forced contributor to the film’s climactic stab at Significance.

I won’t describe the movie’s final passages, but what I took from them was a creaky and ultimately unconvincing effort to say something big about evil and guilt and denial in communities, a statement that finally–and very surprisingly–spreads the responsibility around, gender-wise: Women are just are blameworthy as men, we’re meant to see, because women support the violence and repression that men enforce.

The problem here is not that such an assertion is necessarily untrue. It’s that the claim is sloppily crammed onto the film’s final act rather than dramatically developed: Not only is the cop’s girlfriend a clunky cipher, but the revelations we get from Jimmy’s wife at the story’s end come out of dramatic thin air. (Once you start looking for them, inconsistencies like this in Brian Helgeland’s script abound.) Worse, though, is the sense that all of this emerges not from some encompassing vision of humanity’s ills but, rather, from Eastwood’s career-long limitations in portraying women. Women in his world are never more than feeble projections of men–and thus guilty by association–and Mystic River wants us to take this as profundity than the reflexive lack of insight that it actually is.

The Eastwood artistic coin has always had two faces: sentimentalist on one side, cynic on the other. Personally, I find the sentimental side–the Clint of Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, Bird, and the recent Piano Blues on PBS–not only more agreeable but also more real. When the cynic takes over, as in Mystic River, and we’re told that man is nothing more than the sum of his darker impulses, it too often feels like we’re being sold a bitter pill wrapped in the glitter of pretension. EndBlock