"Mystic River" Director: Clint Eastwood
review by Latif Zaman
A generation before Mystic River, Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns introduced Clint Eastwood as a cultural icon, the enigmatic and dangerous "man with no name." Previous westerns showed a good-humored and colorful time, where bloodless gunplay represented a righteous machismo, namely a defense of family and honor. Leone and Eastwood's collaborations painted a bleaker picture, with no delineation between good and evil, and no need for honor. In their barren western landscapes, self-interest and greed became the only motivations, and bloodshed was nothing more than the logical means to those ends. Eastwood's series of "man with no name" characters juxtaposed caustic humor and irreverence with startling, but emotionless violence.
From the stately, somber score, to a moody gray aesthetic, Eastwood saturates Mystic River with a dark, unrelenting pressure. If the stark featureless deserts of Leone's films reflected the moral emptiness of his characters, Mystic River's protagonists are perpetually gathering storms of trauma and scars. The camera, in fact, often views events from above, a silent omniscient. While some may classify the film as a murder mystery, most startling is the oppressing feeling of inevitability. The film starts with the young Jimmy, Sean, and Dave whose basic characters are already defined. Jimmy is strong and aggressive, Sean is a cautious and watches Jimmy's example, while Dave is soft and awkward, teased by friends. Primordial evil, in the form of a pair of child molesters, raises the blinds on their relative innocence and seals their fates. The rage that simmers inside the grown Jimmy is palpable. Sean, the police officer, is drawn to evil as an observer, and Dave's every gesture seems to answer to his has victimization. Jimmy has committed unspeakable evil, Sean witnessed such evil, and Dave feels it everyday of his life. These roles trap them, and only they cannot see the unwavering propulsion of tragedy of their Sisyphean struggle to escape.
In the spaghetti westerns violence is a rational choice for an immoral, seemingly godless world. There is no tragedy because life has little meaning. A more malevolent deity inhabits Mystic River. Dave obsesses over vampires at one point in the film. Like vampires, the molesters seemingly infect the boys with evil. This becomes their cross and they are already doomed. Tragedy ensues as the fates punish them further for trying to escape. Dave is branded as a victim but kills a child molester, ostensibly to save a young boy. His actions are violently against character and represent a desperate attempt to destroy, to erase the crime perpetrated upon him. His destiny in more than any single set of actions, and as in all tragedy he cannot escape destiny. He is punished for his hubris by being blamed for the murder of Jimmy's young daughter and eventually being killed by Jimmy.
After time in prison. Jimmy tries, uneasily, to fit back into society. The death of his daughters propels him back into the life he desperately tried to leave. Years ago, after his first murder, he tries to appease his guilt and do penance for his crime by supporting the widow and children of man he killed. One of the boys ends up senselessly murdering Jimmy's daughter. Jimmy ends the film knowing that his penance ended in his daughters senseless murder, and his search for justice ended in his friends equally senseless murder. Jimmy learns that he brings death and the only question can be who and when.
Violence and crime started long before these friends, and long before the molesters. A river is symbol of movement and change. To Eastwood, however, humanity is a contaminated river and everyone who drinks of it is infected. From Dave to Jimmy, the only differences are the symptoms. Only Sean physically leaves his neighborhood, but looks back through the window of being a cop. The violence and atrocities of humanity becomes his career. His wife doesn't want to bring a child into this cycle and leaves him while she is pregnant. While he is the only character who physically escape the neighborhood he never tries to escape the human infection of evil. Being on the police force he is forced to bear witness. Only when the film ends and his wife returns with their child is the viewer left to wonder if Sean too will continue his friends struggles and try to transcend the cycle of human evil that engulfed them.