A View of Mystic River

Analyst and writer Gretchen Heyer explores the complicated nature of grief in this review of Clint Eastwood's film Mystic River.

A View of Mystic River

Every story has a beginning and an end, a kind of frame that makes it understandable, makes the story fit with the experience that it portrays. The frame works to include and exclude. It decides what questions we can ask and what questions we cannot. Each of our lives has its particular frame of culture and family, of religion, country, experience and education. The frame shapes our narratives, generating its own sense of justice and being in the right because it excludes what does not fit with it.

Three boys play in the street in the first scene of Clint Eastwood’s award-wining film Mystic River, when a pedophile masquerading as a plainclothes cop interrupts their game, taking one of them away. Flashing forward twenty-five years, the three are again drawn together by a brutal murder. Sean (Kevin Bacon) is now a cop himself, Jimmy (Sean Penn) a shopkeeper, and Dave (Tim Robbins) a gentle father. How the three men struggle with their past as it impacts their present reveals the ways they are both trapped by history and able to engage the possibility of freedom.

By now it has become familiar to say that we are formed by what has come before in our lives—and as Dave is taken off by the pedophile while Jimmy and Sean are left behind, the frame of this film gives us a particular experience of formation. How much does Dave’s entrapment by the pedophile determine his later life? Clearly the early experience generates an awareness of pedophilia in others, and perhaps even vulnerability to that energy. The experience also becomes part of why Jimmy suspects Dave—as if it is a kind of defect in Jimmy’s eyes that makes Dave more likely to target Jimmy’s daughter. And we can’t help but wonder if their boyhood escape from the pedophile propels both Sean and Jimmy towards similar values expressed in very different ways. They both live with a particular kind of guilt and maintain their authority—by force if necessary—protecting those they see to be weaker than themselves.

In the frame of this film, Jimmy’s murder of Dave becomes almost understandable—and it is given a clear spoken reason by Jimmy’s wife at the end; Jimmy murdered Dave because of Jimmy’s love for his daughter. The note of falseness in this reason is something we’ll come back to, but the murder has a reason, just as Dave’s act of murdering the pedophile has a reason, and Sean’s search for Katie’s killer.
The film seems based on a kind of truth that when we are acted on violently, it can appear as if our ability to set our own path in life is completely undermined. Responding with violence even seems justified, as if it can erase our survivor’s guilt, give us back a certain self-righteousness and power in the face of what we cannot control.  But the real art of the film is that it gives us not only its own frame, the violent beginning and the particular trajectories of the lives that violence influences, it also dares us to imagine these lives differently even if beginning in exactly the same place.

From the opening scene the film asks us to question easy assumptions. The pedophile who took Dave appears to be a police officer accosting the boys for what he says is an illegal act. The man in the car with the masquerading police officer wears a ring with a cross, as if he is some type of priest. Later, loyal friend and loving father Jimmy is revealed to also be an ex-con with a murderous past. So we are faced with the question: what hides under collective norms? Under individual norms? What is justice? What is right?

In some ways the ‘right’ for Sean, Jimmy and Dave is in their desire to love and protect their families. Complications come in the families themselves: Sean’s wife leaves him when she’s pregnant. Dave’s wife thinks her husband may have murdered Katie. Jimmy’s daughter Katie wants to run away with Brendan. As if any of us can ever really avoid the complications of loving.

But even as the film portrays a kind of inevitability to the tragedies, it critiques that inevitability. It situates individual responsibility in its collective conditions, but holds both choice and fate up to our view by its circular movement. And while the film reveals those who commit acts of violence as responsible for them, it also raises the question of our larger social responsibility.

Before the film even begins, the back story is that Jimmy has killed Ray Harris, the father of Brendan and his brother. Jimmy has then supplied the bereaved family with a monthly check, as if he has some awareness that taking a life wounds the lives it connects to, as if he is trying to make some reparation for his actions, as if money can compensate for a life.

Those same fatherless boys then contribute to Katie’s death—Brendan through his love of Katie and wanting to run away with her, and his brother who feels he is losing Brendan, and their bond has even greater importance in the absence of a father. Because while Brendan’s brother may have inadvertently killed Katie, he wants to keep Brendan with him, wants to mean more to Brendan than Katie ever did.
We humans are at once acted upon and acting.  Our responsibility lies at the juncture between the two. What can we do with the conditions that form us? What can we do to transform or change them? How do we accept what cannot be changed?

As the film ends, we see that by murdering Dave, Jimmy has killed another father and may once again try to make up for this with money. And once again, it is clear that money is not enough to make up for Dave’s life. Outside the frame of this film, what will Michael’s life hold without Dave? How will that loss affect him?

We humans have a fundamental dependency and vulnerability to others that cannot be willed away. While this vulnerability can be felt as a weakness, it is part of what it means to be human. And even as the film shows us the acts of violence rippling through lives, it suggests that there were choices, ways it could have happened differently; that the individuals were not simply destined to play out their fate, that their acts were not assumptions of individual evil. True, the situation was a breeding ground for violence. But a breeding ground does not necessarily have to breed.

Part of what it would have taken to begin in the same place as this film begins, to keep its frame and tell a different story, would have been grief. By grief, I mean the way we all undergo happenings beyond our control and find that we are beside ourselves, not at one with our selves. Grief is a mode of apprehending a state of dispossession that is fundamental to whom we are. We cannot confront great loss to ourselves, great violence or even the near escape from violence and say that we will go through our grief in a certain way and get a known result, that we will complete the task of grief and get a kind of resolution. In grief something takes hold of us. Where does it come from? What sense does it make? To what are we tied? By what are we called?

When grieving is something to be feared, our fears give rise to an impulse to resolve it quickly, to banish grief with an act that has the power to restore our world to its former order. Jimmy killed Dave in such an act, banishing his grief, returning himself to the illusion of control in his world. Dave killed the pedophile in a similar manner. And Brendan’s brother killed Katie.

But the film seems to ask: what would have happened if each of them had stayed with the sense of loss in themselves, the sense of their own powerlessness, their human vulnerability to others and all that is beyond them? Contrary to what Jimmy’s wife tells him in order to bring him comfort, the film seems to be wondering if it was any kind of love that propelled Jimmy to kill Dave, and if it was not more connected to Jimmy’s own difficulty with powerlessness in the face of his loss.

Within the frame of the film, we are presented repeatedly with a kind of self-sufficiency that is not disrupted by the larger processes in which the subjects participate. Dave, Jimmy, Brendan’s brother, even at times Sean—they all try to take control of the situation in a way, at times denying something of themselves. While Dave is portrayed as the most vulnerable, he also works to eradicate his vulnerability in the form of killing the pedophile. While Sean is often in the most control, he is also unable to speak to the wife who left him. In this subplot, Sean gives us a glimpse at another way. He answers the phone every time his wife calls. He listens to her silence. He grieves. He tries to communicate his sorrow to her. It is as if he shows us that by giving up control to our grief, we gain a different kind of control in our future. What has happened can live on in each of us, changing its form.

While the film gives us the tragedy within its frame, it also suggests that we have a responsibility to imagine otherwise.  It seems to ask: who am I? Who are you? What is coming? And how do we face whatever comes without shoring ourselves into ourselves, without fore-closing vulnerability, without making ourselves secure at the expense of another?


I want to thank Judith Butler for her work on mourning and violence as it has added much to my thoughts on this film, and life itself.


Gretchen Heyer is a Jungian analyst in private practice in Houston, Texas. She has a PhD in creative writing from The University of Houston.