The Charles River is English tweed and cappuccino from Starbucks. It splits the twin campuses of Harvard University and hosts the Head of the Charles Regatta, a band shell for the Boston Pops and fireworks on the Fourth of July, marinas for modest but assertively picturesque sailboats and a lovely promenade behind Boston University with stone bridges leading over to Cambridge and M.I.T. This is the river basin known to the world through NPR, PBS and college-admissions literature. The Mystic River is oily denim and worn flannel; it’s Nescafé in a paper cup. Look here for working docks, rail yards, cracked sidewalks and shingled multifamily houses tightly shoehorned among parish churches, neighborhood bars and grocery stores.
Mystic River opens with three boys playing street hockey on an asphalt side street lined with boxy 1970’s-style cars. A misplaced shot sends their ball rolling down a curbside drain. The image sets the theme of the film. This street, this neighborhood, sucks its people down into oblivion as surely as it swallows errant rubber balls. Years later a father will tell his son that this drain must contain a thousand lost balls, much as the street hides a thousand lost lives. Without their ball, the boys turn to mischief. They solemnly inscribe their names on wet cement, as though commending their lives to the street forever. One boy, Dave, does not finish the project, since as it turns out, his life, still rooted in this neighborhood, will never reach its natural conclusion either. Their makeshift monument is in fact a tombstone. As the boys play, their fathers smoke, drink beer and talk about the Red Sox, sitting on porches overlooking the open water, but fenced in by tight railings, every bit as confining as prison bars. Yes, they are lifers.
What interrupts Dave’s project? A man flashing what appears to be a police badge stops his unmarked car as the boys labor over their petty vandalism. He scolds the three and orders Dave into the car. A sinister figure in the front seat turns around to look at the boy in the back seat. He wears a ring emblazoned with a cross, such as a priest might wear. Sadly, that image tells the entire story, and allows the narrative to leap ahead to the present.
The three boys, now in their 30’s, still live in the neighborhood. Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) has done time for robbery, wears tattoos (including a cross that he carries on his back) and supports his wife and three daughters by running a neighborhood grocery store, with the ironically rustic name of “Cottage.” Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) works homicide for the Massachusetts State Police. His pregnant wife has left him for reasons that are never clear, but continues to call from New York without saying anything on the phone. But Sean is still committed to her. During an accident investigation he deflects a heavy-handed flirtation from a female officer, much to the puzzlement of his partner, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). The survivor-victim of molestation, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), has also married and appears devoted to his son. He drinks too much. His puffy face and slight stoop suggest that his life is headed nowhere beyond the old neighborhood.
Jimmy’s oldest daughter, by his first marriage, disappears, and the police locate her body in a thickly wooded park area. Jimmy’s friends rush in, not only to support him, but to keep the police away from the crime scene. A murder of one of their own is their business and not a matter for outsiders like the police. The code of silence sets in. Even though Sean is one of them and understands their morbid tribalism, his investigation runs into a stone wall. One of the young men in the neighborhood is mute by birth defect; the rest are mute by choice.
On the night of the murder Dave returns home at around three. He is covered with blood and carries several wounds, but offers hollow explanations to both his wife and the police. Although questioned at first only because he saw the dead girl in the bar earlier in the evening, his implausible and inconsistent stories soon make him a suspect. He is only one of many. The victim has not been raped and her purse has not been opened. Why such a brutal crime? In this neighborhood, the webs of relationships and memories of old grudges go back a long way, and several motives seem plausible. Revenge for some ancient crime cannot be discounted.
Women, no less than their husbands, support the code of silence and revenge. In this hard, unsmiling world, grief dries their tears before they have a chance to flow. Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) agonizes about her torn loyalties, but Jimmy’s wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) entertains no doubts. In one chilling sequence, she calmly holds a surviving daughter in her arms, and in the soft tones of a tender lullaby explains the horrifying ethic that rules their lives. No matter what it takes, they will be loyal to one another and protect their interests at any cost, even murder.
This is dangerous material to deal with. In less skilful hands, the socially limited people on the Mystic could become cartoons. Sophisticated filmmakers from Hollywood might have set up shop on the bluffs of the Charles, where they could look down on the locals with condescension and bemusement. Brilliantly, they avoided the obvious pitfall and observe their characters with respect and regret. The film could be called an urban tragedy. The people of the neighborhood find themselves trapped in cages of class, education and even accent. With so much going against them, the slightest misstep plunges their lives into disaster. In this tight-knit community, the tragedy becomes contagious. It spreads outward in rings from one friend to another, from one generation to the next. Their lot becomes doubly tragic because escape is possible, but in this closed world “making it” is suspect and therefore unlikely. Survival is the goal; failure the norm.
The final scene repeats the theme of lost souls so beautifully introduced by the lost ball. The neighborhood gathers for a parade through its main commercial street. All the main characters are present for this reprise, and with them are the children, the next generation of the community. The children smile; their parents do not. Their young smiles will fade as the parade of generations passes by and they replace their parents on the sidewalk holding their own children. The screen dissolves slowly from the parade into the Mystic River as the camera slides along the waves toward the skyline on the distant shore, but it slowly drops ever closer to the surface and sinks into the water. The film ends with a totally black screen. Like the lost hockey ball, the characters seem destined to be drawn down into the endless flow of the Mystic.
The script by Brian Helgeland builds on the novel of Dennis Lehane. The plot provides a serviceable framework for the story. It is a better-than-average police procedure narrative, with its complement of false leads, personality conflicts in the precinct house and male bonding with the black-and-white team of detectives. Solving the crime holds a place of secondary importance, however. Not bound to slick, Hollywood solutions, “Mystic River” is free to probe personalities and relationships, communities and self-interest, loyalty and betrayal. It forces us to look at the menace and unfairness faced by those who lack the resources to protect themselves from the larger society. Though the dangers may be imagined, to them they threaten survival. They are losers, but they are human. Much of the hopelessness rises from the film’s deceptively subtle use of images, color and visual symbols. It forces its audience to listen with its eyes.
Under Clint Eastwood’s direction, the brilliant cast creates a most memorable collection of characters hewn from life on the edge. Each of the lead actors clearly ranks among the most competent in film today; they have the Oscars to prove it, and they deliver superbly as ensemble performers here. In an uncredited cameo role, veteran Eli Wallach appears as Mr. Looney, the aging owner of a liquor store, who enjoys reliving the good old days as a tough guy when the police question him about a robbery he thwarted some years earlier. All these actors, stars in their own right, seem perfect for their parts. Due to its resolutely downbeat theme, “Mystic River” will probably not have strong enough box-office to attract Academy Award nominations for them. Too bad. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and Marcia Gay Harden should be on everybody’s list.