Unlike US journalism, which seems to have buried its head in the sand, a slate of recent American films takes a closer look at the roots of the national character. Why is violence always the first response? Hot on its heels follows revenge, sweet and best served cold, and in the case of Mystic River, there is not a speck of redemption in sight.

Clint Eastwood produces films like clockwork. Sometimes they are classics (Unforgiven, Bird), sometimes they are lightweight thrillers (Blood Work). Mystic River is adapted from Dennis Lehane’s crime novel by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential), and it’s Clint’s darkest film yet.

It is utterly refreshing to see fiction films making the kind of analytical, introspective effort that the mass media avoid. Gus van Sant’s Elephant and Zero Day by newcomer Ben Coccio both offer us a glimpse in the mind of the Columbine High School shooters – teenagers picking up guns and playing god in the ultimate videogame. The three adults in Mystic River might not see death as a videogame, but one of them certainly feels the right to dole out punishment where he thinks it’s due.

Jimmy, Dave and Sean grow up in the rough south side of Boston. When Dave gets kidnapped by a fake cop who turns out to be a predatory paedophile, he and his friends are scarred for life. As grown-ups they seem to be doing a little better. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a homicide detective; Jimmy (Sean Penn) owns a corner shop; and Dave (Tim Robbins) has withdrawn himself into the routine of family life.

All hell breaks loose when Jimmy’s teenage daughter is found dead. Sean investigates the case, old wounds opening left and right as he returns to the old neighbourhood. His partner Whitey (Laurence Fishburne) has to keep things in perspective. Already volatile before he saw his daughter’s slain body, ex-con Jimmy sends out his bulky Irish buddies to dig up some dirt in the neighbourhood. He has little trust in the Boston police force. Sean asks him to curb the vigilantes and for a while, Jimmy seems to comply. While there is little fun to be had for Kevin Bacon with his straight guy role, Sean Penn has a field day letting the anger in Jimmy come to the boiling point.

Meanwhile Dave is thrown back to that dark period of his childhood where he had to separate himself from what was happening in order to survive. He is losing his grip on the frail sense of reality he built around himself. Robbins plays Dave as a hunched character who pops in and out of shadows, as though he would prefer to disappear behind the wallpaper if that were possible. It makes him look guilty to his wife Celeste (played by Marcia Gay Harden), who is still wondering why he came home with a bloody gash the night Jimmy’s daughter was killed. When Celeste finally shares her suspicions with Jimmy, he decides that his mate from the Boston PD has had enough time to find the killer. Jimmy and his thugs want blood, and that’s what they’ll get.

For those who like their crime stories dark, this is a great film. Eastwood has beautifully translated Boston into dark blue, green and black tones, and there’s not a Hollywood smile in sight. The acting by Sean Penn and Tim Robbins – one extrovert, the other introvert – goes above and beyond the call of duty. They tell the audience what to think and how to feel, and since they are great actors, it’s a joy to watch them go the extra mile. However, the film’s music, scored by Clint himself, and the sweeping, close up-happy camera feel forced and downright intrusive when there are already so many emotions flying across the screen.

So from a European cinephile perspective, Mystic River can be a little overbearing. The finale is downright uneven, settling for a happy ending during an all-American parade, when poor Celeste knows Jimmy has taken matters into his own hands. Violence as a short cut doesn’t work and doling out justice will always claim innocent victims. It would perhaps have been interesting to have spent more time with Celeste, so the conclusion doesn’t feel so tacked-on. Mystic River is a step up from Eastwood’s bloodless thriller Blood Work, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Unforgiven – but for those who won’t mind wallowing in Boston’s dirty water, it’s one hell of a ride.