Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane, the film version was written by Brian Helgeland and could easily be enjoyed as a very suspenseful murder mystery. But for those who want a deeper experience there are many layers for you to explore.
For starters, the film doesn’t open with the murder. Instead, we meet the three main characters when they were boys playing street hockey, and they discovered some freshly laid cement. Well boys will be boys, so, led by Jimmy, they all write their names in the cement – first Jimmy, then Sean. But when Dave starts, he only gets the first two letters of his name written when a car pulls up and a man flashing a badge and handcuffs yells at the boys for defacing property and halls Dave away on the premise of having a talk with his mother.
Instead, the men take Dave away and hold him in a dark cellar while they molest him repeatedly for days until Dave is finally able to escape. Thankfully none of this sexual violence is shown. But enough is hinted at then, and in later flashbacks, for the audience to understand the terrible trauma Dave was subjected to as a child.
Next we move into the present and meet them in their adult lives. All three are married and have at least one child.
Jimmy (Sean Penn) has three daughters; his oldest to his first wife who died while Jimmy served a two-year prison term in his early 20s. When Jimmy got out it was up to him to raise Katie (Emmy Roosum). It’s this responsibility that kept him fairly straight. In time he married his second wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) and they had two more children.
Dave (Tim Robbins) married Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) who bore him a son. It’s obvious that Dave has something missing like his incomplete name in the cement. His son is his balance and what keeps him functioning in the world.
Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a homicide detective. Sean’s wife recently abandoned him while pregnant with their child. She calls him from time to time just to hear his voice but says nothing.
The backgrounds of all three men are extremely important when Jimmy’s oldest daughter is murdered and the police’s investigation unfolds. Eastwood weaves past and present traumas so subtly that you're kept guessing to the very end. Yet all the time you’re learning some powerful lessons such as the ongoing influences of violence on the human spirit and the primal influences of loyalty.
All performances are top notch, but Sean Penn as the grieving and vengeful father is over the top. Also pay close attention to Tim Robbins and Marcia Gay Harden. Their interactions as husband and wife show how haunted a couple can be by violence both in the past and the present.
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