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The bonds of friendship, especially deep-rooted relationships that span decades, are central to the human experience. While most simply think of the high school or college buddies we see so infrequently in our daily lives, it is the friendships that go sour over incidents from years ago that always seem to leave the deepest marks and are the more decidedly difficult to overcome.

Director Matthew Warchus taps into this deep, lingering hurt in his adaptation of Sam Shepard's play "Simpatico." Set against the backdrop of thoroughbred horse racing in Kentucky, "Simpatico" tells the intertwining stories of three close friends whose foray into the world of fixing horse races leads them down a dark and dangerous path.

In the midst of young love and blissful delusion, Carter (Jeff Bridges), Rosie (Sharon Stone) and Vinnie (Nick Nolte) worked together switching bad horses for good ones, thus inflating the odds and allowing them to make huge payoffs on long-priced horses. When racing commissioner Simms (Albert Finney) discovers their cheating, the three try to pay him off. When that fails, they trick him into a life-altering set-up that ruins his life.

Decades later, the three are living very different lives. Vinnie has relocated to a small California town, where he lives in virtual poverty among the bits and pieces of his life with Carter and Rosie. By great contrast, Carter has become a very wealthy horse breeder in Kentucky, where he has married Vinnie's old love, Rosie.

A strange and paranoid call from Vinnie puts the friends' lives in Turmoil, however, on the eve of Carter's biggest horse sale to date: the Triple Crown-winning thoroughbred "Simpatico." Jumping the first flight to L.A., Carter is led to believe that Vinnie has been arrested for harassing a young woman named Cecilia (Catherine Keener).

Still uneasy over the terrible crime they committed so long ago, Carter reveals that the man they set up has returned to Kentucky under an assumed name. When Carter agrees to speak to the woman who had Vinnie locked up, he discovers he's been tricked. Vinnie takes Carter's car, wallet and plane ticket back to Kentucky.

It seems the need for redemption is too much for Vinnie to let go of. His part in destroying the racing commissioner's life has haunted him for too long, and now, he decides, is the time to make amends. All the while, the sale of Simpatico grows nearer and Carter's acceptance of what Vinnie's actions might do to him becomes clearer. Whether Vinnie can track down the commissioner or make up for what he's done is irrelevant. What matters to him is the ability to try to alter the future and undo the past.

Director Warchus does a fine job of using the strengths of his players as well as the material he's adapting. From the genial melancholy of Bridges to the misplaced enthusiasm of Nolte to the seething repulsion of Stone, Warchus gets powerhouse performances from his cast in roles that very easily could have drifted into over-the-top cartoons under less steady hands.

As expected, "Simpatico" is a beautifully shot picture, thanks to award-winning cinematographer John Toll ("Braveheart," "The Thin Red Line"), as well as being a smart and engaging work that really begs the question of audiences: Can the past ever really be laid to rest?

* MPAA rating: R, for some strong sexuality and language.


Jeff Bridges: Lyle Carter

Nick Nolte: Vinnie Webb

Sharon Stone: Rosie

Catherine Keener: Cecilia

Albert Finney: Simms

A Fine Line presentation. Director Matthew Warchus. Screenplay Matthew Warchus and David Nicholls. Play Sam Shepard. Director of photography John Toll. Editor Pasquale Buba. Music Stewart Copeland. Production designer Amy B. Ancona. Costume designer Karen Patch. Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.