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mystic river | endless shades of grey

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Note: This review gets heavily into plot, so if you don’t want to know some of the major plot lines in this film, then see the film first. This review will be a spoiler if you haven’t seen the film or read the book. That said, you can read this and still enjoy the film – just expect to know more than perhaps you would want. — srp


It’s that old expression about the wings of a butterfly changing the world. How one thing affects another thing and so it goes. I keep thinking of this when I see the film Mystic River, a film about three boys and their childhood growing up in a town that I once lived in, in exactly that part of town, and so I watch these characters and I see my old streets and the corner market and the local liquor store and I hear the accent that is done remarkably well by the actors in this film, save for a few guffaws that make it seem that anyone from Boston must sound slightly retarded, overall, here is something perhaps too accurate for comfort, and as one who still visits the old hood, Mystic River touches home every time.

Well, Dennis Lehane should know. He’s writing about a true story, he’s said, and he’s writing about a town that he’s lived in and still lives in fact, pretty much his whole life. Lehane is a local and he writes about characters that are real – people he grew up with and more, Lehane writes about himself. I remember meeting Lehane years ago, long before Mystic River was published, at a reading our publishing house (where I worked at the time) was putting on for another author. I was the Publicity Director and had booked our “star” author to read and needed a second to help support the reading and draw a crowd to this very posh bookstore. Lehane, still fresh and green at the time, was relatively unknown, save for the local crowd who came to hear the hometown hero. What I remember about Lehane is that he struck me then, as he strikes me now when I see him in interviews, as someone who was and is, like myself in many ways. A guy who grew up on the “wrong side of the tracks” and never knew anything but blue collar and worked his way out of it somehow only to move back home because he couldn’t stand the upper classes once he got there and how they looked down on him the minute they heard his accent or found out where he was from, or perhaps discovered that maybe, like me, he had been “the first” in the family in so many ways – the first to break the blue collar boundary, the first to go to college perhaps (my case; I’m not sure of Lehane, though I would guess), the first to be a so-called “intellectual”, whatever that means, and then to find that once you reach that high mark, the other intellectuals don’t’ want to have anything to do with you.

All of this results in having a chip on both shoulders – so you’re perfectly balanced in this way. You’re like his character in Mystic River — Jimmy Markum – a local boy, played by Sean Penn, who has had to fight for everything his whole life and who has a certain regal quality because although in the larger world he may be regarded as “shit” in his own world, in this small town, he is king. He is the guy you don’t fuck with. He is the popular guy, or the guy with charisma, in any event, he’s a guy who is somehow able to bridge both worlds (here, he will bridge a friendship between two old friends, Sean Devine, now a state trooper and Dave Boyle, a guy trying still to piece a life together). Jimmy Markum is the guy that nobody can fully figure out but who is highly regarded by his peers from a mixture of both fear and respect. You don’t fuck with Jimmy Markum. You don’t fuck with him because he’s seen it all and he knows that “a king” as his wife says (Laura Linney), “knows what it takes” and this means a king has to make tough decisions and if that means killing someone to protect his own, then shit, he’ll do it and by God, even I can’t fault him for this because if I thought someone had killed my child, my girl or boy, I’d likely kill them too. The story begins with three boys playing on the street – and throughout the film, we will see the repercussions of what happens because of Dave Boyle’s abduction on one fateful day. Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum, and Dave Boyle are about to set out on a path that will change all of their lives forever, and while it may seem initially that the “past is in the past”, we soon learn that things are not as they appear.

The boy who is “kidnapped by wolves”, Dave Boyle, is not as okay as he perhaps makes out he is. He’s managed to make his life semi-successful after, as a child, being abducted from the street by two grown men posing to be cops. Boyle is taken to a basement where, we gather, he is raped repeatedly by the two men, one who will remain vague and the other who is in some Christian, likely Catholic, religious order as we know from his white collar and his crucifix ring. Boyle will save himself. He finds a way out and runs for his life, quite literally, and although he will live, the life he has left will be one that is plagued always by these “wolves,” and yes, he grows up and marries and even has a child, it seems he has never really told his wife, Celeste, the whole story. Perhaps it’s shame or fear or perhaps he doesn’t’ want to remember. Perhaps it’s just too fucking hard, and god, who can’t understand that. Imagine being twelve or eleven, or any age for that matter, and abducted and raped multiple times by anyone, let alone a priest and his sick friend. It would be hard in any neighborhood, but in this neighborhood, and this I can tell you from experience, as could Lehane, you just don’t go around talking about how you were assaulted, especially if you are a man, because it somehow reflects on your own manhood or virility. It may not make sense, and later in the film we will find out that even to Jimmy Markum, a pervert, a pedophile, is always the one to blame and David Boyle will get his own as an adult by killing a pedophile he comes across in his car.

As fate has it, on this awful night Jimmy Markum will lose his own child, Katie, as well. Two neighborhood kids – one, the son of an old acquaintance whom Markum killed long ago about some other dispute, the other assailant, the young boy’s friend, will kill her. The two boys are playing with a gun when it accidentally goes off. Afraid that the girl will tell on them, the boys chase her to the old abandoned bear cage where they beat her with a hockey stick. The beating is given by “Silent Ray,” the son of “Just Ray” whom Markum killed. Silent Ray has an agenda though – the girl is his brother’s girlfriend and he fears that the love his brother Brendan has for him is being absconded and sucked away by Katie Markum because he is in love with her and so has less time for his brother – or that’s the way Silent Ray sees it. Silent Ray gives Katie the beating of a lifetime and this, combined with the gunshot wound, result in the death of Katie Markum, the incident that sets the plot for the story and back story of Mystic River. The best thing I could say about this film and this book is that you should see it and read it. The film directed by Clint Eastwood, is true to the book and is superbly acted with pretty much an all-star cast of actors who have all made their reputations by acting in smaller, often independent films that were outstanding, though I would say by far, Mystic River sets a new high for pretty much everyone involved in the cast.

Sean Penn, cast as Jimmy Markum, plays the role of a lifetime and is excellent in conveying both the regalness and down and dirty sides of his character. He is at once a “king” as his wife says and a thug. He is both someone to admire and someone to pity – and that’s tough to play out for any actor. Penn does this so convincingly that even at the end when we find that his act of “nobility” (seeking his daughter’s killer to then kill the killer himself) is painfully flawed because he finds and kills the wrong guy, but that he has had a chance to right this wrong all along if only he had not, perhaps, been so influenced by other neighborhood thugs (lesser thugs, let’s say), like the Savage brothers who encourage him all along to shoot the supposed killer. Markum will do it, and he will do it somewhat unwillingly but believing he is avenging the death of his girl – in this way, we feel for him. We understand what he is trying to do and it’s hard to blame him for this. As a good actor, a superb actor, Penn is able to evoke our empathy for Jimmy Markum, even after we find out that, oops shit, he’s killed the wrong guy, we still say he did it for the right reason. If you look hard, if you have empathy, like his wife, you can see a certain street nobility and justice in what he was trying to do even if it doesn’t all work out the way we had hoped it would.

Perhaps not everyone will see Mystic River the same way. Perhaps I’m being too liberal here with my own opinion or perhaps I can see into Jimmy Markum and Dave Boyle and pretty much all the local characters because I’ve lived it and lived in it. I’ve seen this life and seen how unfair it is but also know that there is, on the street, a certain justice and caste system or royalty that has a certain nobility. I doubt that this can be seen if you come at this film from a strictly white-collar point of view. You have to approach this film with a certain toughness and more, a sense of reality that exists only in tough blue-collar neighborhoods. IF you look at Jimmy Markum and only see that he killed the wrong guy, you’re missing m ore than half of the story and you’re missing who is the real Jimmy Markum.

Likewise, if you look at Silent Ray who is partially responsible for killing Markum’s daughter and see only a criminal you are missing part of the story – you’re not seeing how tough it will be for this kid if his only hope, his brother Brendan, takes off to Las Vegas and marries Katie Markum (as the two young lovers have planned — a plan that will never be because Katie is killed the night before). If your brother can carry out his plan, you are left behind with your chain-smoking mother and essentially no future and stuck in townieville where you’ll play out your life just like daddy, most likely, because your options are limited. You have to know this kind of fear or at least, be a person of great empathy to truly understand these characters and what drives all of them. All of these characters seek to rise above their situation somehow, yet all are held back in some way either by experience, circumstance, or personality issues that rise out of not having advantages that perhaps others have.

The only character who seems to be out of the old neighborhood is state trooper and old friend, Sean Devine, played by Kevin Bacon, one of the kids who was part of the initial trinity of Sean Devine, Jimmy Markum, and Dave Boyle who used to play together as kids and who were playing street hockey and writing their names in wet cement when a car pulls up and scolds them, and after, takes the perceptible weakest of the trio, Dave, into the car and then drives off. This how Dave Boyle’s life will come to be defined by this one incident in which he is abducted, kidnapped, and then raped for what we gather is several days by the two men noted earlier, one of whom is a clergy member. It’s an incident that none of the boys, it seems, ever really recovers from. Dave Boyle man ages to build an okay life, but he’s still fucked up and that’s understandable. Jimmy Markum has a sort of mock bravado about it all, and it seems, sort of drops Dave Boyle after this event and is not really friends with him after the incident.

It’s really the death of Katie that brings the three boys, now men, back together. Devine as the detective on the case, Boyle as the husband of Celeste (Jimmy’s wife’s cousin who helps out after Katie dies), and Markum as the grieving father out to avenge his daughter’s murder. We see the three characters interact in every way possible – that is to say with love, with empathy, with rage, with past hurts that are not let go – the gamut. As Devine says at the end of the film, “Sometimes I think all three of us got in the car that day, Jimmy….” And then, “Did you ever think what woulda happened if it had been me or you in that car instead of Dave?” Jimmy’s only response now, now that he has found out that he has killed the wrong guy, still has lost his daughter, and learned that some things just never change, is this: “Yeah, but it wasn’t us….it as Dave…” Devine may have managed to break out of the old hood and be able to consider the incident from a more white-collar point of view, that is, more intellectual point of view, but to Markum it’s still pretty much a simple issue: Dave Boyle got in the car and while that’s sad, and while he has a certain degree of empathy, it’s also not really his problem. Let the saps like Sean Devine mourn for the little boy that was David Boyle but Jimmy Markum has made his commitment elsewhere and that is to himself and to his family and he will go to any lengths to protect them, even if it doesn’t always work out the right way, he has still lived by his code, just as Devine has now found his new code to live by – and that is the code of the state trooper, the Right and the Good, ideals that are more abstract than the rules of the street.

What more is there to say about this film, this book, or this author — likely a great deal, but I’ve said enough here. Regardless of how much I’ve outlined the plot if you haven’t seen this film, there are still so many layers that you will not be let down. By no means can you predict with any real accuracy what will happen next, as this film is full of twists and turns and surprises that keep you guessing and more, and more importantly perhaps, cause you to rethink things that you thought you knew were right or wrong. What we can learn from Mystic River is that while the white-collar and the wealthy may have the luxury of living in a world that is Black and White and full of hard and fast rules and ideals, the world of the blue-collar, the town, be it East Boston or Charlestown or anywhere on the other side of the bridge and on the edge of the Mystic, is a world that will always be grey. Just endless shades of grey…

sadi ranson-polizzotti

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About Sadi Ranson-Polizzotti

  • Thank you for a thoughtful review of a book/film that plumbs the depths of la condition humaine.

    Dennis Lehane’s other books go even deeper into the night.

    I think Catholicism pervades every layer of the characters, and Sean Penn, a self-identified agnostic creates a moral universe in each of his films that addresses personal responsibility like few others – ref “The Pledge” and “21 Grams”.

    “The Crossing Guard” is similar in many ways to Mystic River, but somewhat stilted compared to this film.

  • D.B. Cooper

    Nice work on an absolute gut-punch of a movie. I think what thrilled me most about Mystic River was the leisurely pace of the film, with scenes playing out in languid fashion, passions, feuds and regrets revealed in small ways. Put together, each scene building upon another, eventually we are so engrossed and mesmerized, we cannot turn our faces away. It’s like reading a great novel (I have not read Lehane’s work). There was some suspense, especially during the predictable murder investigation scenes and during the eventual killing of a main character, but even these play out slowly, quietly. Eastwood’s best work has ironically shied away from outright action or violence, instead focusing squarely on the characters and their quirks. A Perfect World is a great example. After watching this film, I was exhilarated and thrilled. Mystic River is filmmaking (and screenplay writing) at its finest….

  • i’m really glad you like this review. i thought about it a lot and have seen the film about seven times to get what i wanted to say down….
    and i could still go on and on, but that would be more of a conversation. i ‘d love to sit down with you all or someone else really into it and chat about it, because there’s just so much in here. I think it’s great that we can use the comments here to carry on a conversation after the review – it’s gratifying to know that other people saw as much as i did in this film. I lived in this neighborhood for a long time and so a lot of what goes on the film was very familiar to me, not only because of where i lived in America, but also, that neighborhood is very much like the hood i grew up in in London, so it’s a whole world that is unfamiliar to many people – thus, i focused on class lines, because people often say that there is no class sytem in America, but i think a film like Mystic River really shows that yes there is, and it’s sadly, alive and well. The poor are always relegated to the ghetto and live by their own rules etc, and basically, nobody cares, just as long as they’re killing each other.

    i think, as i wrote, that Jimmy Markum is quite noble in some ways, and i remember saying this to someone whitecollar who seemed to totally disgree, which struck me as odd. I can see it, that yes, he acts hastily perhaps and makes a mistake as we all know, but i can still say that we all make mistakes and it’s a whole different story when it’s your kid or a white collar rich kid who disappears and the whole police force is on it. It’s interesting to see how Sean Devine, the cop, is sort of laughed at by another minority (laurence fishburne who plays “Whitey” the other cop), who even though he is a minority himself, kind of looks down on the guys in the hood like Jimmy Markum, even asking him about the prison time he served as if he were a suspect in his own daughter’s murder. Devine has to intervene and make sure that Whitey doesn’t put his own stereotypes on the characters who live in this small part of Boston near the Mystic.

    REad the book for sure. It’s a great book and i’m on to read other of Lehane’s books. I would love to interview Lehane. I think he would be a good person to really talk to so maybe i’ll see if i can chase him down to talk about some of these issues; i met him years ago, but at the time, he hadn’t published as much and i was working for a different publisher but i still immediately identified with Lehane for reasons i noted in this piece.

    argh. i go on and on.

    thx. for reading this – any and all thoughts are welcome. i’ll check out other review of this film – i’m sure there must be others here on blogcritics….

    rock on.


  • D.B. Cooper

    I can see some of the “old school” philosophy being played out on the streets of tough Boston, and perhaps this is never more apparent than one of the film’s final shots, when the wife of Dave Boyle is strangely isolated and alone, a leper within her community. There’s a street code on this side of the tracks, and it’s a code that has been around long before Boston was a town. Loyalty is very important in this neighborhood, and Celeste Boyle, for better or worse, made the wrong decision. One suspects she will not be forgiven, thus, with the sun shining and parade marching by, she is looking for someone, anyone. She’s no longer a part of this neighborhood.

    What is most terrifying of all is a simple question. What would you have done in her place?

    Perhaps the very same thing.

  • right about how Celeste is cut off from her own neighborhood. This the answer to your question re; what would i have done in her position?

    answer: i would never ever ever turn my back on my husband. in short, i’ve always got my husband’s back, regardless of anythign else. If someone even says something about my husband, i don’t really want to know them anymore. I identify far more with Annabeth, Jimmy Markum’s wife, who is incredibly loyal to her family – fiercely protective, like a lioness protecting her cubs and her den. I ‘d likely be the same way. I can’t imagine doing what Celeste does – as Annabeth says, “What kind of wife does that?” and i understood completely. Yes, what kind of wife does that?

    The thing is, i think Celeste always had a thing for Jimmy Markum and wished that she coudl just touch that royalty thing he had going on, come close to it, and that Dave was a bit of a failure to her, though she loved him, some part of her was always jealous of Annabeth and you can tell by the way she treats Jimmy that part of her reason for telling isnt’ so much about Katie, but is about herself – that she has this small crush or large crush. That’s by no means her only reason, but i think you have to factor that into it. I think that’s part of it. At least, that is what i, as a woman, saw in her behavior at certain moments. I think Jimmy, like many men, and this is not a criticism, was blind to Celeste’s feelings, but Annabeth clearly is not – she ices her out not only because she told on her husband, but because she knows damn well that Celeste has always had a thing for Jimmy.

    In any event, i would never turn my back on my husband, and i do mean never. Even if i thought he had killed someone – i’d really get it out of him and talk to him and figure out what to do together – i’d never just go and DO without really dealing with him first. To me, that’s part of what makes a good marriage, is that you always have each other’s back.

    A similar thing happens in Unfaithful, but Diane Lane decides to stick to her husband, and though the end is a bit ambiguous, she still is loyal to him in her way after he kills her lover. IT’s clear that she would choose her husband, only too bad she didn’t make that decision before she took a lover to avoid the whole mess, but alas, we are fallible. It’s not the same, and they are upperclass in that film clearly, so their decision to hide a murder from the police is slightly different in tone, but it’s the same thing.

    But Celeste Boyle – i think she is pathetic in a way, and i say that in a heartfelt way because i do pity her. I feel sorry for her, but i also know that i’d be one of those people standing at the parade clapping. She broke the code, and once you do that, the community is not going to take you back and give you a second chance. You get one chance when it’s sink or swim, when it’s that tough, you just can’t fuck up like that the way she did. I also think that regardless of how much she may have thought she believed Dave did it, she also on some level knew that he didn’t. I believe that. I think she knew damn well, and then probably immediately regretted it, as is clear the next morning because she knows.

    Didshe think Jimmy would leave Annabeth because she turned over “the killer” (who happened tobe the wrong guy), but even if it had been the right guy, JImmy Markum was never going to leave his family for her. the whole thing is in her head.. and that’s sad.

    Hope that answers your question. I guess i’ve lived enough of this life both in Eurpe and now in the states and in the same neighborhood that i’ve seen things go down that shouldn’t have gone down, but were resolved by the locals, and not by the police. Street justice, though i can’t say it’s a great thing, i will say that it does usually work. I always felt safe in that neighborhood – i always felt protected because i lived by the code and never swayed. I was accepted because of that. If anyone hurt me, then i made sure certain others found out and they took care of whatever.

    It sounds strange to others, i’m sure, but these things really do happen, and they happen right here and they happen in urban ghettos or neighborhoods all over the country, all over the world. You have to live it, i guess, to know how much this is NOT fiction.

    Poor Celeste Boyle , yes, but she brought the boom down all by herself and should have known better.

    You never turn your back on your family. Ever.

    amen, and over and out.