June 10, 2023 at 4:00 am

Mystic River (2003)

Mystic River (2003)
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Brian Helgeland (screenplay), Dennis Lehane (novel)
Stars: Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon


“The time bomb buried in the psyches of young boys sexually abused by men of the cloth explodes in Mystic River, a gutsy expose of a deep and far reaching problem ignored by the Catholic Church for too many years.”

Clint Eastwood steps out of the picture as a real hero of society with his production of Mystic River, brave beyond his ‘make my day’ film image.Mystic River makes it abundantly clear that sexual abuse by a priest is not comparable to any pain a child suffers at the hands of an ordinary adult. It’s personal, familial and societal, implanting a boy with a resounding world of hurt and filling his community with confounding guilt. Eastwood’s willingness to tell it like it is and show the power of sexual abuse laced with religious overtones to persist throughout a lifetime is more than an act of bravery. It’s a gift of sight. Mystic River translates a complex emotional injury into terms that everyone can fully comprehend. Sexual abuse by a man carrying religious authority acts as thief and killer of a child’s soul. Even the friends of a child who’s been abused, the ones who don’t directly experience the abuse but simply know that they could have, so easily, been victims suffer a crisis of trust that will affect their actions and personal destinies.

Three boys of about ten years old playing stick hockey in the side streets of an Irish Boston suburb lose their ball down a sewer drain. Left without a game to play, one suggests they amuse themselves by taking a parked car and driving it around the block. Another says his mom would kill him if he did anything like that. The third hangs back, hankering for a little excitement but not ready to break the law. Finally, the first gets a bright idea. They can carve their names in a block of freshly poured concrete sidewalk. He goes first, aggressively printing his name, “Jimmy”, with the end of a stick. The second goes along, scrawling “Sean” in the wet cement. And then, rising to a jibe from Jimmy, the reluctant third one takes the stick. Just as he finishes the second letter of his name, “Da..”, a car pulls up and a large burly man acting like a cop steps out in a big overcoat and, in old fashioned terms, puts the fear of God in the boys for destroying public property.

All well and good. A familiar scene of getting caught etched in the memory of many adults from childhood. But then the cop steps forward, a bit out of character, zooming in on the boy who went last when he finds out that he doesn’t have parents who might be watching from an overlooking apartment. He physically forces him into the backseat of his car. And then it gets worse. It’s not the false badge flashing nor the hand cuffs hanging from the belt, but the ring with the insignia of the priesthood on the hand of his pal waiting in the car that sends chills up our spines. The pal, a man in black with the telltale white collar casually drapes his right hand with the ring over the back of his seat, turning back to get a good look at Dave. Later, a large gold cross swings loose around his neck as he comes after Dave cringing on a mattress in a bleak cellar where he is being held by these two men against his will.

Dave manages to escape four days later, running through the woods like a wild, hunted animal. As he returns home, a crowd gathers to watch and someone whispers ‘looks like damaged goods to me’. Everyone knows what that means. His shamefaced mother huddles him into the house and can be seen berating him in an upstairs window. Not just Dave but his friends, Jimmy and Sean, will bear the blame for this abduction as if it were them, not the priest who perpetrated the crime. There is a specter of evil that comes in human form that cannot be captured and put behind bars. It lives in the shadows of hubris and rises up years later to take a deadly toll. Wanton assault on a child’s innocence by adults holding not just lawful but sacred authority is a game with far reaching consequences.

The three boys drift apart, grow up into a mobster, a cop and an unemployed ballplayer. Their friendship becomes a thing of the past until a young girl is murdered in their old neighborhood, forcing them to cross paths and showing exactly how the ghosts from a childhood incident can still dictate the critical choices in their lives. Dave (Tim Robbins) now has a young son, about the same age he was when he was abducted. He’s a dear but broken man, tormented by demons and married to a frightened, stupid woman (Marsha Gay Harden) who may love him but has no ability to think for herself. Sean (Kevin Bacon) has aligned himself with the law, becoming a homicide detective on the Boston police force. Married but estranged from his wife, he cannot say what he wants nor apologize for what distances him from her pregnancy, afraid to take on the responsibility of being a father. Jimmy (Sean Penn) solidified his penchant for rebellion into life of crime as a smalltime mob boss after a couple years in jail. He’s become a family man with a loyal but jealously possessive wife (Laura Linney) and three daughters, the oldest a blossoming nineteen-year-old daughter from an earlier teenage marriage. She’s the girl who’s been murdered.

Jimmy’s mind meets the disaster with rage, so wracked with grief and guilt that he can believe – against evidence – that Dave still holds his fate against him for that day so long ago. Dave still reels with shame about his hatred for fathers who abuse boys and cannot speak in his own defense. At first, Jimmy seeks Dave out as a confidant for his own guilt but then he turns on him as if Dave’s death offers salvation. He kills him with self-righteous clarity, raging against injustices he cannot prevent and raging justifiably against the forces of evil that have invaded him. Jimmy’s friends as well as his wife are persuaded by his hatred of an enemy they cannot find, admiring of his wild impatience with the law. Any enemy will do. Of course, Jimmy’s actions make him exactly what he so much wants to eliminate — an irrational force of violence aligned with religion against the exploitation of the innocent. And, once again, Jimmy slips away from the reach of the law, evading the police but not Sean. And Sean, once again, gets caught bearing witness to an injustice he cannot make right, cannot understand.

Sadly, each of the three wives in Mystic River is deeply enmeshed in her husband’s misery, playing roles that close rather than open doors. Dave’s wife is in over her head when he comes home covered in blood with a story that he may have killed a mugger who attacked him on the way to his car. She cannot contain her anxiety about what really happened and, when Dave cannot speak clearly in his own defense, she makes a terrible choice to seek solace from Jimmy. Jimmy’s wife is a woman envious of her step-daughter’s tag on her dad’s heart. So, when Jimmy is at his darkest moment, realizing the power of guilt to distort his good sense, she assuages him with a speech of self-righteous rhetoric that barely covers her glee at finding herself at the center of his attention. However, it’s Sean’s wife that clearly reveals the wives of such men to be mirrors of their own trap. She appears as a woman without identity on the other end of a phone, separated from Sean and pregnant. She dials but she doesn’t speak, making random calls to him that bear no message. She’s a reflection, waiting for him to speak. He must break the silence if it’s to be broken. It is only he who can open the door, make an attempt to escape the legacy of ‘what if’ – what if it had been him who had been abducted that day. Is he up to the role of father?

Mystic River is not a new story, it’s an old one. Children being brought up in a simple system of right and wrong where they are continually complying with and breaking rules, finding their way toward being an adult as they make their choices and receive punishment or praise. However, somewhere behind the simple system lies the ‘big system’, the one that determines whether they’re a worthy human being in the eyes of God. And somewhere along the line, a child decides about himself and begins to make choices that fit his decision of worthiness. In Mystic River, two boys get to make that decision – one doesn’t. For the two who do, one goes with the law and one goes against. The one who lost that critical decision lives life with a shredded soul guided by hands that shake and a mind that can’t remember. That child, haunted by nightmares, grows up never sure whether he’s a real human being at all, much less a worthy one. He’s eaten up by a wolfish anxiety that steals his choice, his intelligence and his spirit – and makes him a victim all over again.

At the end of Mystic River, Jimmy and Sean attend a community parade in the old neighborhood with their families. For a brief moment, they catch one another’s eye across the street. Silence hangs heavy between them like it did on that day so long ago. They’re not friends but a familiar feeling passes between them. They’re again implicated witnesses, bonded beneath the skin by a certain knowing. The son of the third man – the missing one – rides in the parade. One day, that kid will need the truth. Will he get it? Mystic River gives some idea of the complexity of that truth, some picture of just how many men and women are truly responsible for Dave’s death. And Jimmy’s daughter?

This is a story with a moral. When a boy’s soul is not protected from evil, he walks a dark path of perpetual doubt about whether he qualifies as a real human being.

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