River Rising
Clint Eastwood's Mystic River.


Thomas S. Hibbs

Dave (Tim Robbins), the most tragic of a host of tragic characters in Clint Eastwood’s gripping drama, Mystic River, is fascinated with vampires. He tells bedtime stories about wolves to his young son. Brutally abused as an eleven-year-old boy, when he was abducted from his South Boston neighborhood as he played with his two buddies, Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon), Dave compares his abusers to vampires: “once in, it stays with you forever.” But vampires also attract him because they suggest a way out, the possibility of forgetting “what it’s like to be human.” Mystic River depicts a community of functional vampires, individuals who have been to varying degrees deprived of their humanity and who in turn–and often unintentionally–deprive others–especially the young–of theirs.

After a brief and mostly indirect portrayal of the abduction and abuse of Dave, the film turns to the separate but rapidly intersecting lives of Dave, now married with a son, Sean, a local homicide detective enduring separation from his wife, and Jimmy, an ex-con who seems to have gone straight and is now married with three daughters. When Jimmy’s 19-year-old daughter, Katie, is murdered, Sean is assigned to the case and Dave eventually becomes an unlikely suspect. The brilliance of Mystic River is all in the storytelling and the acting. Any one of the three subplots would have made for a good individual film. Their combination and intersection make Mystic River a superior film, at least by contemporary standards. (It is not, however, in the same class as the great film it most often calls to mind, The Godfather.)

Of many excellent scenes in the film, one relatively minor scene best illustrates the virtues of this film. The cops fairly quickly discover that the murdered girl was secretly planning to elope with a young man, Brendan, against the wishes of her father. The cops interview Brendan in his kitchen as his mother, aloof and impassive, observes from the doorway. She appears disgusted at her son and comes to his aid only after she learns that Katie’s father thought her son was not worthy of Katie. When she’s asked directly whether she can corroborate her son’s alibi, she says coldly that she heard him close his door around 10 at night and come out the next morning, but she can’t say that he did not climb out his window during the night. She turns slowly to exit the room. It is a remarkable little scene that illustrates how a fierce determination to survive and a residual, if depraved, sense of honor can coexist with a callous indifference toward one’s own children.

The film contains two dominant and not entirely consistent themes. Sean explicitly states one of the themes toward the end of the film. He tells Jimmy that his whole adult life has seemed unreal to him. It seems that “this is a all a dream. In reality we’re all eleven years old, locked in a cellar, wondering what our lives might have been like.” The major characters do indeed suffer from a kind of psychic paralysis, a deprivation of childhood that mars their adult lives. Although everyone suffers and is adversely affected by events and choices beyond their control, they do not suffer in the same way and are not equally passive in response to events. The strongest statement of the ability, the necessity, of mastering what little may remain in one’s control, also comes at the end of the film, as Jimmy begins to express regret to his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney). She interrupts and gently yet firmly tells him that whatever he has done must have been necessary for his family. He is, she reassures him, a king, willing to do whatever it takes to protect and advance his family. They are, she continues, not weak like the others but strong, worthy to rule in their town.

One of the wonderful things about the film is that it leads us to embrace the truth of both statements. The characters are to varying degrees and in varying proportions both victims and perpetrators. But the film does not excuse their acts. It exhibits the human cost, for individuals and communities of the vampire-like existence of the adults. Jimmy, a role Sean Penn plays with surprising finesse and range, is the most complex of characters, the one who appears most victorious at the end. Yet it is not clear what victory means in this story or in this town. Jimmy also shows the most awareness of his own situation and his own guilt, even when he is not sure of its source. Addressing his absent daughter, he says, “I know in my soul I contributed to your death, but I don’t know how.” In a rambling speech just after he learns of his daughter’s murder, he speaks of the cascading implications of “one little choice,” for example, his choice not to get in the car all those years ago with Dave. But the outcome then was as much a matter of chance and character as of choice; Dave was the only one who lived on the adjacent block so he was the one the men insisted need to be driven home to his mother. And Dave, even as a boy, was clearly the weakest, most docile one in the group. So the film presents human destiny as an indecipherable mixture of chance, choice, and raw strength and cleverness.

The dialogue in the film is just right; even the Boston accents, while not perfect, do not get in the way. But this film is as much about silence, about what’s not said as about what is said. There’s the silence of the three boyhood friends about the definitive event of their youth, the event that foreshortened their childhood. There’s the particular silence of Dave. Even when he finally does speak the names of the men who abused him, it is not clear whether this is a moment of healing or a sign of incipient madness. There’s the silence of the Sean’s disaffected wife, who calls occasionally but simply hangs on the line in silence, uncertain that communication is even worth the effort. There’s the silence of Brendan’s mute younger brother and the silence of the Mystic River, an actual river, whose name “mystic” carries the meaning of “hidden” or “secret.” Then there’s the pervasive neighborhood code of silence, with its complex rules and practices of deception and confession, voluntary and forced.

The film ends on a communal note of silent recognition. A Columbus Day Parade winds its way through the city streets and gathers the families onto the sidewalks. The camera picks out Dave’s disconsolate son, reflecting the misery that one generation inexplicably inflicts on another, in his baseball uniform riding in the parade. Then we witness the silent encounters, the knowing looks exchanged, between Jimmy’s wife and Dave’s wife and between Jimmy and Sean. This is a town where the failure to heed the silences, to interpret and respond appropriately, is the most costly of all vices.

Thomas Hibbs, Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Culture at Baylor University, is author of Shows About Nothing. Hibbs is also an NRO contributor.