Mystic River (2003)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

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Mystic River tries to tell you that the past never really dies.  This is a film about a working class neighborhood in Boston in which the three central characters are deeply haunted by a moment from their childhood.  The story opens with this tragic memory before jumping multiple decades into the present.  The friends have all grown apart but still bump into each other here and there.  They’ve moved on, but, we see, they really haven’t.

The performances of Mystic River are tremendous.  It’s a lively world, and every aspect of filmmaking works to bring it effectively to life.  At the same time the message is hammered home a few times too many, and I don’t believe there is much of a message to begin with.

The film is burdened with its own self-importance.  There seem to be intended lessons to be learned, but the characters and their world is so specific, so uniquely theirs, that it’s hard to know what kind of wisdom we’re supposed to have gleamed.  Is it a warning?  Is it something about how we never really escape our pasts?  That’s what I took from the film, but one of the main problems is how the entire story is dragged along by pure coincidence.

Really, this movie is just frustratingly good.

The three friends from childhood are Jimmy, Sean and Dave.  They are introduced in a captivatingly dark prologue.  They play hockey in the street, they lose their only ball in the gutter and then they carve their names in fresh pavement.  Jimmy and Sean scribble down their names, but Dave only gets the first two letters out before they are interrupted by men claiming to be cops.  The men intimidate the boys and abduct Dave, holding him prisoner until he escapes about a week later.  Though he returns in one piece, there is a haunting shot of his silhouette in the window, kind of like that of Norma Bates from Psycho, showing that he is forever changed.

We jump forward to meet the men as middle-aged adults, still toiling around the old neighborhood.  Jimmy (Sean Penn) lives the quiet life, but he once went away for a couple years due to a criminal past which continues to loom around his present doings.  Sean (Kevin Bacon) is a detective lamenting his wife leaving him, and Dave (Tim Robbins) is a timid family man, his childhood trauma reflected in his quiet disposition.

Opening with the flashback of when Dave was abducted sets up the tone for the entire film.  Even though years have passed, when we see adult Dave our first question is how this moment changed him.

Dave walks down the street with his son and points out the gutter where he and his friends lost so many balls as children.  Then his eyes wander over to the cement where the three friends had carved their names.  It’s a striking image.  Dave is momentarily in a daze, not immediately responding when his son calls for him, and he’s clearly shaken by the memory.

Later Dave will see Jimmy’s 19 year old daughter at a bar, and later he comes home to his wife, Celeste (Marcia gay Harden), beaten and bloodied, saying he screwed up.  Dave tells her that he was mugged and may have killed his attacker.  She bandages him up but the next morning begins to get a little suspicious when she sees nothing in the newspaper about a body.

That same morning, Jimmy’s daughter is discovered murdered in a park.  Her death will bring together the three childhood friends, with Sean as the investigating detective and Dave as one of the prime suspects, at least as his suspicious behavior continues.

This all leads to a climax in which Jimmy decides to kill Dave for murdering his daughter.  In the same moment (the scenes are cross-cut), Sean and his partner (Laurence Fishburne) arrest the real murderers.

The movie then ends with Sean telling Jimmy they got the guys, and Jimmy must live with knowing he killed the wrong man.  The final image, like the first, is striking.  The families are all gathered to watch a parade, and Celeste stumbles around the street, distraught, knowing her husband is likely dead.

Mystic River is a haunting movie, and there’s something poetic here, but the story only works because of insane coincidences and ridiculous red herrings.

First, it turns out Dave didn’t kill a mugger, but a man soliciting sex from a teenager.  He saw him, snapped, and beat him to death.  This just so happens to have been the same night Jimmy’s daughter was murdered.  Celeste becomes concerned that Dave murdered her because of his strange behavior and because there’s no report of another dead body in the paper.  He killed someone, and the only death was the girl’s.  But then only after Jimmy kills Dave do the cops happen to stumble upon the body of the man Dave really killed.  We know Dave was overcome with emotion and not thinking logically, so that, plus the fact that he was injured, suggests he wouldn’t have the time or foresight to hide the body.  Basically, there is absolutely no way that body stays hidden for so long, but it has to in order for Jimmy to suspect Dave and for the story to march onward.

Once Dave kills the man, it’s understandable he wouldn’t come clean to his wife right away.  He doesn’t know why he needed to lie and admits that his mind gets messed up sometimes.  This is extremely understandable given what he went through as a child.  That plus murdering another man is bound to make him act strange.  But I have to think that Celeste must’ve known something about where this behavior was coming from.  Everyone seems to have known what Dave went through as a child, so it’s unlikely Celeste wasn’t aware of his abuse.  I might think that she would give him the benefit of the doubt, but you know what, I guess her behavior makes sense.  I’d be freaked out too.  The only other problem is that she goes to Jimmy, saying she thinks Dave killed his daughter, instead of to the police.  Why?  WHY?

Look, people distrusting the police has always been a thing in movies, and I guess in life.  In this kind of Boston neighborhood it makes some sense that people would try to solve things on their own than with the cops.  But Celeste and Jimmy are not close at all, at least before the death of Jimmy’s daughter.  And if anything, Sean is as close to Dave as Jimmy is.  Then you have the fact that no one walks around trying to disrupt the investigation.  Everyone cooperates with the cops and seems to like them.  So why would Celeste go to Jimmy knowing his background (it doesn’t seem much of a secret that he whacked a guy years earlier)?  At the same time, the idea is that no one is thinking clearly, so perhaps it’s understandable.  Still…

As Sean and Whitey (Fishburne) investigate the murder, they learn more about Jimmy’s mob activity.  He once went to prison because a man named Ray Harris ratted him out.  Harris’ son Brendan (the kid from Sandlot) just so happens to have been dating Jimmy’s daughter, and they were planning to run away to Vegas to get married.

When we find out the gun used to kill Jimmy’s daughter belonged to Ray Harris, this puts the target on Brendan as well as on even Ray himself.  It opens a lot of questions, is the idea.

Between these mob connections, the ill-will between the Harris family and Jimmy, you can start to paint a strange picture of what happened.  Well what did happen?  Well Brendan’s mute little brother and his friend shot Jimmy’s daughter.

Was there a motive?  Well, no.  They found a gun, wanted to play with it, they wanted to scare the next person who happened to drive by, it happened to be Jimmy’s daughter, the gun happened to go off, she ran and they shot her again because they were scared.

Look, the movie knows this is a coincidence, but it’s such a huge coincidence that the children of two men with such a long history happened to run into each other.  We learn, as well, that Jimmy executed Ray (and has been sending $500 a month to the Harris household since), so Ray’s young son killing Jimmy’s daughter is some kind of karmic retribution.

After Sean tells Jimmy what happened to his daughter, they look down the street, the same one they played on as kids, while they say things like…

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Oh so we waxing poetic now, huh?

One of them, I can’t remember who, then says, “Sometimes I think we all got in that car that day,” and goes on to describe how this has all been a fever dream, an imagined scenario for how their lives went down, and they’re still just kids trapped in a basement.

Look, on some level this is all kind of beautiful and complex, but I don’t really think it is.  The movie suggests that those three men were all changed by that one day.  Except that Jimmy’s life has nothing to do with that moment, and Sean’s whole thing is about how his wife left him, and I can’t see how that had anything to do with that day when they were kids.

The movie tries to force the issue, suggesting we’re all deeply connected to our pasts and can’t escape it.  That’s a perfectly fine idea for a movie, but the plot has very little to do with that flashback.  Dave’s abduction only serves to make him suspicious to Jimmy and Celeste.

You know, in that scene between Jimmy and Sean above, after they go their separate ways, Sean’s wife calls him again.  She’s been doing this the whole movie, and we’re told it’s been going on for a while.  She left him six months before, and now she calls him once in a while and says nothing, just listens to him.  It’s happened so many times he knows to expect her silence.  Just then, after that scene with Jimmy, she finally speaks and says she’s coming home.  Who cares about Sean’s f*cking wife.  It’s a moment meant to add catharsis, but it has nothing to do with anything else in the story.  Cut it.  Get it out of there, God I hated that so much.  And the timing!  Of course it’s right then, after the other plot thread has been resolved.

Dammit this movie is so frustrating.  Again, what’s the point?  Is it that we can never outrun our childhood?  I have no idea, because that final scene, the one with the parade, is heartbreaking and confounding.

Sean and Jimmy make eye contact, each knowing the other knows what happened to Dave.  But they’re both going to remain silent, it seems, though Sean makes a gesture to suggest he’s coming after Jimmy, just not right now.  Oh and Sean’s with his wife, so good for him.

Are we supposed to like Sean?  Because I sure as hell don’t.  While he’s standing there, all happy because his wife ran home, he makes eye contact with Celeste, the most tortured character of them all.  By this point she’s probably pretty sure that her husband is dead, that Jimmy killed him and that it’s her fault because she told Jimmy that Dave probably did it.

So, talk about guilt.  Celeste hurries around, angling for a view of her son in the parade.  As she rushes through the crowd (just get to the parade early next time) she sees Sean.  He looks at her, says nothing, then turns away.  DUDE.  Say something!  Is Sean trying to protect Jimmy or something?  WHY?  What is wrong with him.

Now that I think about it, I’ve never watched a movie like this and had my perspective of a character progress from ambivalence to disgust, at least not when he’s not the villain.

I don’t get it.  What is Clint Eastwood saying?  How are we supposed to feel other than bad?  Because I felt bad for Celeste, and bad from a narrative standpoint.  The coincidences!  But again, coincidence can be purposeful.  Plenty of stories are built on coincidences, but they say something meaningful, I mean look at PTA’s Magnolia for godssakes.  At least he knows what he’s doing by introducing extreme coincidences into the plot.

Mystic River just takes advantage of all its coincidences to keep the story going forward, but it’s like building a house on the beautiful banks of some lake that has been as of yet undeveloped.  “What a view!”  You might say while wondering why no one else has built here before.  Then a week later you notice the house sinking under the unstable foundation.

Up Next: Stagecoach (1939), I’m Carolyn Parker (2011), Intolerable Cruelty (2003)

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