Mystic River (2003) – Clint Eastwood

What happens to men when they are faced with the stuff of nightmares? In this film horrific events of the past loom heavy over horrific events in the present. Dennis Lehane’s original novel, Mystic River, was a gut-wrenching book to read. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare in pages, providing for a dramatic screenplay of epic proportions. Clint Eastwood’s film was nominated for Oscars, Golden Globes and more. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins delivered stellar oscar-winning performances in what I believe are still their best roles.

This is a male dominated story. Sadly even with two strong female characters who were apparently friends, they don’t speak to each other. I am scratching my head now wondering if any of Clint Eastwood’s films pass the Bechdel test. But I digress, this is a movie focused on men coping with unimaginable circumstances.

Both the book and the film broke my heart, and rewatching the film now some 15 years later brings back a lot of that original heartbreak. The story does, however, seem a tad coincidental and manipulative, but maybe that is because I can see it more clearly and critically now. Still, there are a number of key moments that have a profound effect on me. It’s in these moments where my heart gets pulled out of my chest, blood drains and I feel as though I am in the moment with these tortured souls. Few films are able to get me to that point. It’s Clint Eastwood’s gift.

Warning: Spoilers after this point.

The film begins in the past, maybe 25 years earlier, with three feisty boys playing street hockey somewhere in a working class Boston neighborhood. The game interrupts when the ball falls down the sewer. They get distracted, fantasize about stealing a car and just as they are writing their names in wet sidewalk cement a big car with a noisy muffler shows up. A man gets out and flashes them a gold police badge, asks if they think it’s ok to defame municipal property, calls them punks, and threatens to tell their parents. One of the boys, Dave, is ordered to get in the car. He does so obediently but apprehensively, and as a man sitting in the passenger seat leans over to him in the back seat, we get that sick feeling that these are not cops. The camera shoots from the perspective of the two boys still standing in the street as they watch the car with a messed up muffler drive down the middle of the median, taking their friend away. Weeks later, Dave escapes from his captors and returns home to his mom and while we don’t exactly know what happened to him, we know it wasn’t good.

This is a story told from the three perspectives but predominantly focused on two, Dave and Jimmy. Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins) grows up marries Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) and has a son Mikey. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) owns a convenience store. He has an 18 year old daughter, Katie, from his first wife who died while he was serving time in prison for robbery. Now out of prison he is remarried to Annabelle and they have two younger daughters. Sean Devine is now a police officer whose wife, Lauren, has just walked out on him.

We are introduced to grown up Dave walking with his son, telling him about the balls that fell down the gutter. When he sees the names still engraved in the sidewalk, his mood changes and tells his son Mikey that it’s time to get home before mom starts to worry. We first meet Jimmy sitting in the back of his store doing paperwork. His daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) drops in to give him a hug and a kiss, and lets him know she’s going out with fiends. “Later Daddy,” she says “Have fun” he says as she walks out. Then another “later” from her to which he ” later” back. Sean shows up surveying the scene of a car crash with his partner Whitey (Lawrence Fishbourne). As they are chatting it’s dropped that Sean’s wife just left him and he is waiting for her to call him to say why she left. This is the everyday backdrop we are given before another tragedy ensues.

Throughout the film, there are parallel scenes where the film cuts back and forth between simultaneous events. It’s a cool technique, manipulative in that is serves to build tension as the scenes progress. We, the audience, are in two places at once and we know things that other characters don’t. An example of this is when the present day tragedy is revealed. While Jimmy and his family are at the church celebrating one of his younger daughter’s first communion, Jimmy is obviously concerned throughout the ceremony, turning to the door watching for Katie who still hasn’t shown up. At this same moment, Sean and Whitey arrive at a crime scene, a young woman is missing. Celeste is at home with the TV on in the background, the reporter announces a crime had been committed the night before and a woman is missing. The film toggles back and forth between these events until they merge when Jimmy comes out of the church after the ceremony, hears the sirens and follows the commotion to see what’s going on. Because of the build-up we are emotionally engaged and highly vulnerable. Jimmy notices that the crime scene is centring around Katie’s car. He tries to push through “that’s my daughter’s car”. And when the cops find Katie’s body, Jimmy has managed to catch up them with the help of his two goons the Savage brothers. He desperately tries to push through the large group of police officers who are blocking the scene. We know but he doesn’t, putting us in this privileged position with the anticipation of the heartbreak ahead. He yells out “is that my daughter in there!?” over and over again, sounding more helpless each time until he eventually falls apart into the crowd of police officers. The camera shots from up above and it’s one of the most heartbreaking scenes. I originally thought Sean Penn was so great, but watching it now, I can see that the careful editing and sequencing of the simultaneous scenes that preceded this moment, along with the camera work, amplified the impact of his performance.

Another one of my favourite parts of the film is the porch scene. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins deliver the sense of this heartbreak so subtly and beautifully, it’s difficult to watch but I feel better for it. It’s shortly after Jimmy has identified his daughter’s body. Family and close friends are at his house bringing food andexpressing their condolences. He’s stealing some time alone on his porch when Dave emerges from a door to have a smoke. “How you doin?” “How you doin?” they ask each other. “What happened to your hand?” Jimmy asks Dave. “Got it caught in a door jam helping a buddy move a couch,” Dave answers, but he seems uneasy. Jimmy talks about all the food that people have brought over that will go to waste. Then he recalls how he was more afraid of his little daughter than being in prison. He remembers when he first got out of prison, when it was just he and Katie, sitting in the kitchen like they were the only people on earth and “I can’t even cry for her” he says. He repeats this as he’s crying saying he can’t cry for her – Dave says “Jimmy – you’re crying for her now”. “19 fuckin years old,” Jimmy says. Dave asks if he wants him to leave him alone but he says “no just sit here with me if that is ok.” This sequence is so sad and beautiful at the same time.

Another heartbreaking moment is when we realize how alone Dave is. Dave is not a guy anyone understands completely. Not even Celeste really knows her husband. He has demons and struggles with processing what is going on in his mind. He tells his son a made up bedtime story about “the boy who escaped from wolves”, which is obviously his way of processing the traumatic events of his childhood. We’d hope that Celeste would support him knowing what he has been through, but she lets doubt overtake her. She tells Jimmy about the night Katie was murdered, that Dave came back at 3 am covered in blood, that he told her he got mugged and bashed the guys head on the pavement but that there was nothing in the paper. Jimmy asks her “Do you think Dave killed my Katie?” Celeste nods her head. At this point, my heart aches for Dave, he is among the wolves again.

Clint uses the parallel scenes again to pull us into the heartbreaking irony of the brutal finale. As the scenes cut back and forth, Sean and Whitey uncover the truth and we are forced to witness Dave’s reluctant surrender to a crime he did not commit. Again we know things that others don’t and this time knowing the truth is almost unbreable. This is not an easy part of the film to watch. Cleaverly cut, we are one step ahead of the characters and its like a runaway train that we know will crash.

My one real issue with the film is that it should have ended after Sean stops by to tell Jimmy, who is slumped over the curb of the street with a bottle, that they caught the killers, that they also found the body of a pedophile and they want to speak to Dave about it. Sean says “When was the last time you saw Dave?” and Jimmy says “Dave Boyle? It was 25 years ago…going up that street in the back of that car. Thanks for finding my daughters killer if only you’d been a little faster.” And Sean says “Are you going to send Celeste Boyle $500 a month too? ” And there’s more to this great scene. Then Jimmy stumbles up the street just as the car did 25 years earlier. There is closure in this scene. Its a perfect end. Sure they could have panned the sidewalk and the Mystic River to the credits. But the parade ending that follows seems unnecessary to me.

Despite the botched ending, I still think this is one of Clint Eastwood’s best.

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