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Literature: Mystic River

"We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean."
Jimmy Markum

A 2001 novel by Dennis Lehane, Mystic River was brought to the screen in 2003 by director Clint Eastwood. The film version starred Sean Penn and Tim Robbins, who both won Oscars for their roles, and Kevin Bacon and Laurence Fishburne.

Years ago, Dave Boyle escaped with his life from mysterious men in Boston. In present day Boston, he is reunited with his childhood friends, Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine when the former's eldest daughter is found dead in a ditch. Sean, now a detective, and Jimmy, an ex-convict, both vow to find the killer themselves. Unfortunately, Dave, who came home to his wife all bloody the night of the murder, is their prime suspect...

This work features examples of:

  • Adaptation Name Change: One of the protagonist's surnames is changed from "Marcus" in the book to "Markum" in the film.
  • Anti-Hero: Jimmy Marcus/Markum.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sure, they catch the killer, but it's just a kid after a prank went wrong, and Jimmy kills Dave because he thinks he did it.
  • Boston: A somewhat fictionalized version of the city provides the setting. "East Buckingham" doesn't actually exist, since it's in the location of the real life Somerville but is ethnically and culturally more like South Boston, which is on the other side of the city.
  • Deadly Prank: Katie was killed as a result of one.
  • Dying Alone: Jimmy murdered a former associate, "Just Ray" Harris, not merely for ratting on him, but because in doing so, he put Jimmy in prison just as his first wife was dying of skin cancer.
  • Film of the Book
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Sean is choleric, Jimmy is melancholic and Dave is phlegmatic.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Sean and Whitey. Laurence Fishburne even said in an interview "This is a film about three men and their wives - I play Kevin Bacon's wife."
  • Hey, It's That Guy!: The doomed daughter Katie is Emmy Rossum, the guy tending Jimmy's shop is Mr. Wolfe - and one of the kidnappers in the prologue is Lieutenant Rawls.
  • Hollywood New England: Well, it is set in Bahstahn, yah?
  • Karma Houdini: Jimmy murdered "Just Ray" Harris and got off by agreeing to pay his family a monthly sum of $500. Later, he kills Dave and also gets off scott-free. Although...
  • Lady Macbeth: Jimmy's wife Annabeth, after he murders Dave. May not be a coincidence considering her name is Annabeth.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: One of the real killers turns out to be the youngest son of "Just Ray" Harris himself.
  • Major Injury Underreaction: One of the police officers recounts a story about a guy who walked into the emergency room with a knife sticking out of his shoulder and asked the nurse where the Coke machine was.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: The Irish Jimmy marrying his first wife, who was Puerto Rican, is mentioned as having been controversial at the time, but this stigma doesn't appear to have been passed to Katie, their daughter.
  • Police Procedural: Although with a bit more focus on the characters' personal lives than most.
  • Race Lift: Sgt. Powers, played by Laurence Fishburne in the movie, was white in the book. For extra irony, the character's name is Whitey Powers, which Dennis Lehane admits was an Incredibly Lame Pun that became even funnier when Fishburne was cast.
  • Red Herring: Dave's bloody clothes on the night of Katie's murder which turn out to be the result of his having killed a child molester.
    • In the novel, Dave is afraid that he's turning into a child molester himself, though Jimmy and his friends never learn this.
  • Retired Outlaw: Jimmy Marcus, by the time of the novel's present day.
  • The Reveal: Katie was killed not by any of the suspects the police consider, but as the result of a Deadly Prank.
  • Schrödinger's Butterfly: It's suggested at the end of the film that all three boys have dreamed the whole thing, and that they're still being molested. This comes from a thought of one of the characters in the book, but was never seriously entertained.
  • Spell My Name with an S: Jimmy's surname is Marcus in the novel and Markum in the film.
  • Southies: All the major characters, with the exception of Sgt. Powers.
  • Stupidest Thing I've Ever Heard: Sean's reaction to his partner Whitey's theory that Dave killed Katie. Turns out Sean's right, and while Dave did kill someone, it wasn't Katie.
  • Survivor Guilt: Word of God is this is the main theme of the book, mainly from Sean and Jimmy about Dave's fate, and Sean because he managed to get out of the neighborhood.
  • Then Let Me Be Evil: Jimmy makes this decision at the end of the story, coming out of his retirement to seize control of Boston's criminal underworld.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Dave could have saved his own life by offering to show Jimmy the body of the child molester he killed, to verify his story. Justified, in that Dave was more afraid of the part of himself that drove him to kill the child molester than he was of Jimmy killing him.
  • Unable to Cry: Lampshaded:
    Jimmy: "My own little daughter and I can't even cry for her."
    Dave: "Jimmy, you're crying now."
  • You Said You Would Let Them Go: Jimmy and his thugs, suspecting Dave is the killer, rough him up and threaten to kill him unless he confesses to the deed. Dave lies to save himself, but Jimmy kills him anyway.
    Dave: "I wasn't ready."


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alternative title(s): Mystic River; Mystic River
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