Mystic River


Mystic River is a novel by Dennis Lehane (Harper Collins: N.Y., 2001).  It was made into a movie in 2003 Directed by Clint Eastwood (who also helped produce the film and he also wrote the theme song for the film) and starring Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, and Tim Robbins.  The following quotes are from the novel.


The story starts out in 1975 with three friends, at age 11, playing on the streets of a large Eastern United States city.  A car drives up.  A man gets out and identifies himself as a police officer.  In the book the reason the cop approaches the boys is because they are fighting in the street.  In the movie it is because they are writing their names in wet cement.  (I consider this an improvement by the screenwriter Brian Helgeland as it is more believable that they would be stopped for this reason than simply for fighting amongst themselves.  In the book they dug in the cement but did not write their names in it.)  He orders one of the boys into the car and drives off with him.  He is not a police officer---he is a pedophile.  Dave Boyle (played by Tim Robbins when he grows up) is the boy carted off for four days and molested before he escapes.


“For a few days, Dave Boyle became a minor celebrity…(but then) the same kids who’d been with him on the front page started calling him ‘freak boy’ within a week at school…Dave would…wonder if there was something about him---some mark on his face that he couldn’t see---which made everyone want to hurt him.  Like those guys in the car.  Why had they picked him?  How had they known he’d climb in that car, and that Jimmy and Sean wouldn’t?” (pp. 29-30).  Dave Boyle “was the Boy Who’d Escaped the Wolves…this Boy Who Was Smart” (p. 35).   Tragically, this terrible event distorts his life and haunts him into adulthood.  However, Dave does have a talent for baseball so for awhile in highschool he was a star and did well and later as an adult he marries and has a son.  He is making an outwardly modestly successful adjustment to life.  But inwardly he is tormented.


The other two boys, Jimmy and Sean (played by Penn and Bacon) grow up very differently.  Jimmy early on becomes a very successful crook but is ratted out by another crook and goes to prison.  While in prison his beloved wife, Marita, dies after giving birth to his daughter Katie.  When Jimmy gets out of prison he goes straight in order to take care of his daughter.  He buys a successful corner market with money he had set aside from his criminal days.  But before he goes straight he kills the man who turned him in.  He remarries and has two more children and life settles into a successful and lawful one of raising his children and running his store.


Sean goes to college and becomes a homicide detective.  The three have little or no contact over the years.  Dave sees Jimmy from time to time as Dave’s wife is a cousin of Jimmy’s.  Then Jimmy’s grown daughter, the beautiful Katie age 19, is brutally murdered and the three men become involved with one another again.  They are now 36 years old.


Don’t get too tied up in the story line so that you miss what the movie/novel is all about.  Remember Spielberg’s Jaws?  It is not a story about a shark.  It is a story about how three men each in their own unique way deal with their fear of sharks.  One hunts them down and kills them, another studies them, the third does his best to avoid them.  Mystic River also has three principal characters dealing with life in very different ways---ways comparable to those employed in the move Jaws.  Sean (Kevin Bacon) studies and tries to figure things out.  Jimmy is the tough and bold and aggressive one becoming a first rate thief.  Dave is hiding from life, it is too threatening to him.  What is more interesting to watch is the very important part the wives of the three men play in this movie.  But we will get to that later in our discussion.


The night that Katie is murdered she visits a bar that Dave is having a drink at.  Since he is one of those who is among the last to have seen her, the police come to talk to him.  As they feel he lies to them, they start to see him as a possible suspect.  We also begin to see him as such because that night he came home late covered in someone else’s blood.  He tells his wife a story that she really doesn’t believe---that a mugger attacked him.  When his wife finds out that Katie was murdered that same night and that the police are talking to her husband about it, she begins to think that he might be involved because she doubts the mugging story.  What the police and the wife don’t know at this point is that Dave has viciously murdered a pedophile that he saw in action when he came out of the bar.  That is where the blood came from.  But he doesn’t want to tell his wife this.  It is OK for her to think he may have killed a mugger who attacked him, but not that he went after a pedophile because that would force him to go into his past and he is doing everything he can to keep that away from the present.


One of the things that Dave muses about is luck or fate.  If Dave had just not gone to that bar that night at that hour, none of this would have happened.  If Katie had not gone to that bar at that hour she also would have had a very different fate.  When Jimmy is talking to Sean at the police station after Katie is murdered he reflects: “You ever think how the most minor decision can change the entire direction of your life?  I heard once that Hitler’s mother almost aborted him but bailed at the last minute.  I heard he left Vienna because he couldn’t sell his paintings.  He sells a painting, though…or his mother actually aborts?  The world’s a way different place.  You know?  Or, like, say you miss your bus one morning, so you buy that second cup of coffee, buy a scratch ticket while you’re at it.  The scratch ticket hits.  Suddenly you don’t have to take the bus anymore.  You drive to work in a Lincoln.  But you get in a car crash and die.  All because you missed your bus one day….I’m just saying there are threads, okay?  Threads in our lives.  You pull one, and everything else gets affected.  Say it rained in Dallas and so Kennedy didn’t ride in a convertible.  Stalin stayed in the seminary.  Say you and me, Sean, say we got in that car with Dave Boyle…If we got in that car, life would have been a very different thing…I don’t think I’d have been so ballsy at sixteen.  I think I would have been a basket case, you know, stoked on Ritalin or whatever.  I know I never would have had what it took to ask out a woman as haughty-gorgeous as Marita.  And so we never would have had Katie.  And Katie, then never would have been murdered.  But she was.  All because we didn’t get in that car…” (pp.173-175).


But Dave did get into the car and his life was changed because of it and all for the worse.  Dave’s wife “had been married to Dave for eight years, and she’d always thought his secret world would eventually open for her, but it hadn’t.  Dave lived up there in the world of his head far more than he lived down here in the world of everyone else…Could Dave have killed Katie…could Dave---her husband---be capable of murder?” (p. 269).  At first she concludes that he can’t be guilty of such a terrible thing…but doubt seeps in, especially as Dave begins to act ever more strangely, until she feels he is the murderer.  You see that it is all about communication.  If Dave had been able to talk more openly with his wife he might never have deteriorated into a murderer of the pedophile and definitely if he had told her the truth about what really happened she would never have suspected him of murdering Katie.


We are also seeing that Sean is having trouble communicating with his wife.  She is pregnant and has left him after having an affair with another man.  She calls him long distance from time to time but says nothing.  He talks to the silent phone hoping that it is his wife.


Annabeth, Jimmy’s wife, is very tough, like her husband.  She is a hard woman and knows it.  When she finds out that her step-daughter Katie was planning on running off with her boyfriend to Las Vegas and getting married and starting life over she thinks the plan was stupid.  These kids “were going to make a life in Las Vegas?  How long would that little Eden have lasted?  Maybe they’d be on their second trailer park, second kid, but it would hit them sooner or later---life isn’t happily ever after and golden sunsets and shit like that.  It’s work.  The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is.  Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves the burden of it, either.  You’ll be let down.  You’ll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days.  You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him.  But, shit, you roll up your sleeves and work---at everything---because that’s what growing older is” (p. 293).


Towards the end of the story Dave’s wife goes to Jimmy and tells him she believes her husband killed Katie.  Jimmy then goes and kills Dave and dumps his body into the Mystic River. 


Three very different women married to three very different men.  One turns on her husband and gives him up as a murderer.  One runs off and abandons her husband.  One, knowing her husband Jimmy is a murderer, completely accepts him as he is, not for what she might like him to be.


Sean finally figures out that the reason his wife left and the reason that he gets phone calls from her where she says nothing is because he has failed to effectively communicate with her.  He has pushed her away with silence.  Now he has to bring her back by speaking to her over the silent phone.  She has left, she has had the affair, she may be pregnant by another man!  So she is the one to blame?  Yes?  Finally Sean realizes that he is the one to blame.  He tells the silent phone: “I’m sorry.”  For the first time he gets a response from his wife over the phone: “For what?”  Sean says: “For putting it all on you” (p. 425).


Dave had toward the end realized that he had made a huge mistake in not talking with his wife, but he comes to the realization too late.


When Jimmy realizes he has killed the wrong person, he tells Annabeth.  He is considering confessing and going back to prison.  Annabeth says that Jimmy is king: “And kings know what must be done---even if it’s hard---to make things right…and he will do whatever he has to do for those he loves.  Everyone makes mistakes.  Everyone.  Great men try to make things right.  And that’s all that matters.  That’s what great love is….They are weak”  Jimmy asks: “Who’s they?”  Annabeth says: “Everyone, everyone but us” (pp. 429-430).


At the end of the movie and the novel Jimmy and his wife are together and still in love.  Sean is now back with his wife and new child and still in love.  Dave is dead.




Assume that one of the three couples in this story comes to you BEFORE Katie is murdered and asks for your help.  Which one of the three couples would you select for interviewing?  Why?  How would you go about helping them?


Keep in mind that this is a rather dark story.  One of the sub-themes is how the cops get you because they are able to use records and gain information on you over time, because you are stupid and don’t lawyer-up, because they play on your emotions---but mainly because you are more stupid then they are.  The only really “normal” couple in the whole book is Sean’s parents.  They are now retired and living out their lives in a comfortable gated townhouse complex where they have few friends and not much meaning in their now pathetic lives---and they are the “successful” ones.  At the end Jimmy has decided that he has made a mistake going legitimate all these years and has decided to go back to being the “king” of crime that he once was and knowing that his wife will fully accept this and be supportive of him.  Yes, Sean has learned enough to now relate more effectively with his wife, but that is the only really positive note---unless you see Jimmy’s return to crime as positive….


The novel makes it more clear than the movie does that a lot of the problems these people face are related to fate and luck but a big part of that fate is whether you are born into poverty with few opportunities or not.  That social forces are powerful predictors of a person’s fate.  Keep all that in mind when you think about how you are going to help one of these couples.