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'Mystic River' shows American legend is far from done

CANNES, France--The man the French call "Cleent" came to town for the weekend, and Cannes once again vibrated like a film festival. After several official entries that felt as if they threw away the movie and showed the deleted scenes, here was Clint Eastwood with "Mystic River," a film that actually had me intently involved in what would happen next.

There have been other good films this year, notably Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions," from Montreal; Samira Makhmalbaf's "At 5 O'Clock in the Afternoon," from Iran; Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Uzak," from Turkey; Gus Van Sant's Columbine-inspired "Elephant," and even the French murder thriller "Swimming Pool," by Francois Ozon. But many of the 22 official entries have been tedious, pointless, incomprehensible and simplistic; five ended with just about everyone being killed. In the bewildering Chinese entry "Purple Butterfly," a film noir about opposition to the Japanese occupation, I think more characters were killed than the audience ever met--some of them apparently more than once.

Therefore, how refreshing that Eastwood's film is about characters we care about, tells a story that is complex but lucid, and ends not in an expected way, but with an ending both enigmatic and poetic; the man best known to some as Dirty Harry is a gifted auteur, and the French, to give them credit, know that.

"Mystic River" involves three adults (played by Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon) who were friends as children. A traumatic event befell the Robbins character, who was kidnapped by pedophiles. Now Penn's daughter has been found murdered, and Robbins has a wounded hand and a shaky alibi. Bacon is a cop, and he and his partner (played by Laurence Fishburne) are on a case which, for Bacon, reaches back to his childhood. Laura Linney is Penn's wife, and Marcia Gay Harden plays Robbins' wife, who begins to believe her husband may be guilty.

If this outline makes "Mystic River" sound like a conventional crime movie, it is not. Eastwood plunges into moral ambiguity, mistaken motives, personal vengeance and ancient wounds. Linney's fierce final speech to Penn was compared by some to the fire of Lady Macbeth.

At his Cannes press conference, the 73-year-old star of more than 50 films and director of 24 sounded like a kid at Sundance, explaining that several studios turned down the project and his actors had to take salary cuts to bring the movie in on its modest budget.

Eastwood and company arrived at the Palais in a convoy of festival limousines, were surrounded by paparazzi, were cheered by fans ("Cleent! Cleent!") and gave Cannes a star-studded weekend after its melancholy week. He also provided a legitimate contender for the Palme d'Or, although Lars von Trier's three-hour parable "Dogville" is said to have the inside track.

"Dogville" has been called anti-American, and Eastwood was asked if his own bleak view of Boston low-lifes was anti-American, as if any film that was not about admirable characters was an indictment of its nation. "We didn't approach our film with anything in mind other than the human aspect," he said. "I don't know if there is such a thing as an anti-anything film."

I asked him about the ending, which does not involve tidy moral housekeeping, but bittersweet ambiguity.

"Things just don't tidy up for me," he said. "A lot of studios didn't want to do this project. In an era where everyone wants to do the obvious thing, and follow successful films, naturally you'd make a comic book. I still like to think there's an audience for serious adult stories. I'm too old to make comic books. This wasn't 'Mystic River Reloaded.' "

Nicole Kidman, in Cannes for "Dogville," mused that she might retire soon, and Eastwood was asked if he'd thought about that.

"I've thought about retiring for 30 years now," he said. "When I directed 'Play Misty for Me' in 1970, I thought, hopefully, if I can pull this off I can work behind the camera--when I look at myself on the screen and say, 'It's time to say goodbye, fella.' " Then he added, enigmatically, "The end may come sooner than you think."

The festival closes Sunday night with its awards ceremony, which is often much livelier than the Oscars. Awards are sometimes booed; on some occasions, directors have given the finger to the jury or the audience; an actress once prefaced the screenwriting award by observing, "screenplays are merde."

The awards will be telecast live on Bravo, and repeated later on the Independent Film Channel, which I will co-host with film scholar Annette Insdorf. Check local listings.

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