Bewildering Stories

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Mystic River : Like the Waters of The Mystic, the Pain Flows On

by Mel Cartagena

In Clint Eastwood’s latest outing as a director, Mystic River, we are shown to a borough of Boston as gray and hopeless as the skies above it. Not once in the movie is the sun allowed to shine over the psyches of the men the movie analyzes. Three childhood friends whose lives are never the same after Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins at his best since The Shawshank Redemption) gets into a car with two pedophiles while Jimmy and Sean watch. Eighteen years later he is bent, both figuratively and literally. Tim Robbins brings to life this tortured man in a walk that is a doubtful shamble; in the hunch of his shoulders, in a face that is always scrunched, even though there’s no sunlight to shield his eyes against. When he sits in the funeral wake of Katie Markham, the nineteen-year old daughter of Jimmy Markham (Sean Penn) he’s "not quite there," as we watch him sitting among the guests with a dazed, almost idiotic expression.

Dave is fact, still in the basement the two men in the car locked him in, still running from the imposing fake authority figures. He tells his young son stories of a child running from the wolves, a boy who had to run because no one would come for him, while his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) watches in the dark, mystified by her husband’s choice of bedtime story, but too insecure to do anything else. She is the perfect compliment to Dave’s broken man. She walks with a quick, mouselike stride, looks down and shifts her eyes when confronted with direct questions by the police. She is a flake of a woman who doubts everything, needs reassurance from others she unconsciously sees as powerful and confident, and in doing so sends her husband to his death; but perhaps that’s the best a man like Dave could hope for after his four-day ordeal with the two pedophiles.

At times Clint Eastwood seems unsure of his own symbolic elements in the movie. We see the flashback image of the young Dave running through the woods when he tries to explain to Jimmy that the bruise in his hand came from beating up a pedophile he ran into after leaving the bar he was in (where Katie also happened to be having a few celebration drinks with her friends), and again in the instant after Jimmy shoots him, when the screen becomes bright and Dave, perhaps in catharsis, sees the image one last time, having found peace at last from the past eighteen years.

The movie as a whole retains a slow and steady threnody of suspense, maintained through the clever intermix of characterization and dialogue that has become typical of Brian Helgeland (the same verve of seemingly indirect speech that propelled L.A. Confidential, Conspiracy Theory and Payback.) It builds to a momentary crescendo as we simultaneously learn (through alternate staging of two separate locations) of the identity of the killers of Jimmy’s daughter and of where Dave really was when Katie was being murdered and the cruel fate that awaits him (then again, perhaps this is what he’s wanted all along.)

Everything that happens after is post-climactic. The heavy-handed dramatics and hopelessly solemn tone that permeates the film demands a cathartic release much deeper than what was dished as the solution for the murder and for the reencounter of the three friends after nearly two decades of deliberately avoiding each other. After the weight of depression of this film is lifted of our shoulders, what we get for our time amounts to little more than a footnote, and the relation between the three men remains a much larger mystery, save for the obvious fact that Dave was never quite the same after his experience, and Jimmy and Sean (Kevin Bacon) seem to have shunned him afterward. Jimmy is now a local businessman and the king of the senile empire that is Chelsea, the borough to the northeast of Boston where the story takes place, and where we are reminded through clever quips and jokes in the movie, is being gentrified from the inside out with the arrival of neo-yuppies.

Perhaps Mystic River’s greatest achievement is the balance Clint Eastwood creates among the cast. No singular presence overpowers or dominates the others, with the possible exception of Tim Robbins’, who simply stands out by sinking within himself. His acting is understated, more visible in gestures than in physical performance. His polar opposite, Sean Penn, operates in the same manner. He is calm and composed as he admits to Dave that years ago he killed a man who squealed on him after an armed robbery and dumped his body in the river, indirectly informing Dave the same is about to happen to him. There is no questioning his power over the trio, even over the homicide detective Sean has become (perhaps learning from Dave’s incident that there is safety behind a badge, as the men who abducted and raped Dave approached the boys posing as policemen.) Sean has moved out of the neighborhood, and lost the thick Boston brogue that comes with the territory (though he regains it over the course of the movie.)

But once again, the true nature of the relation between these three men in the years after the incident with Dave is never fully studied, which I daresay is what the book explores in greater detail (I haven’t read the book, but what I’m putting down here relates entirely to the movie, so don’t start with me about not doing my research.)

They are no closer or farther to each other than before. The gestures Sean and Jimmy make at each other as they watch the parade explain nothing, and whether Jimmy is going to dispense street justice on the true killers of his daughter as he did with Dave is never even broached, and whatever is left to discuss simply flows away with the ebbing tides of Mystic, as we see it in the last panning shot, as the camera pulls back, and WE FADE OUT, AND FADE TO BLACK OVER DEEP, STIRRING MUSIC, AND THEN, THE END.

Copyright © 2003 by Mel Cartagena

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