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Literature / Mystic River

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"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, Laurence Fishburne, Marcia Gay Harden and Laura Linney.

Years ago, Dave Boyle escaped with his life after two men who disguised themselves as cops abduct him in front of his friends and violate him for days in the forest. 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: Jimmy's surname is changed from "Marcus" in the book to "Markum" in the film.
  • All for Nothing: Jimmy's murder of Dave ends up being this upon The Reveal that it was actually Brendan's mute little brother and his friend who were responsible for Katie's death.
  • Asshole Victim: Examined with Just Ray, a man whose criminal past and cowardly actions lead to a lot of people getting hurt, including Jimmy ending up in jail while his wife was dying. His death was an act of revenge, but by all accounts he wasn't that bad of a person, even his murderer admitted to being fond of him. This is played straighter with the pedophile Dave kills which casts the mysterious potentially evil act that the story sets up as much more justified and frees the character of the moral ambiguity that hung over him.
  • Aw, Look! They Really Do Love Each Other: At the beginning, Annabeth only complained about Katie. Our first view on her, is that she is Wicked Stepmother to her. But after hearing about Katie's murder, it's more than clear, Annabeth did, in fact, love her stepdaughter, and is heartbroken by her death.
  • Being Tortured Makes You Evil: The film plays with the idea that Dave killed Jimmy's daughter because the four days he spent with the predators as a child broke him. Dave himself is fixated on the idea that he is becoming a monster (he uses the metaphor of becoming a werewolf or a vampire, with the implication being that he's scared of becoming a pedophile or a murderer). At the end of the film, it is revealed that he killed a child molester the night of Jimmy's daughter's death, and had been clumsily trying to communicate this information to his wife.
  • Beleaguered Childhood Friend: Dave is this to Sean.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Jimmy's oldest daughter is murdered the day of his youngest daughter's first Communion.
  • The Cameo: Eli Wallach has a memorable one as an old liquor store owner.
  • Creator Cameo: In the film version, author Dennis Lehane can be seen waving from the back of a convertible in the parade sequence.
  • Dark and Troubled Past: The storyline hinges on one of the main characters being abducted as a child, and how this event impacted their adult lives.
  • Dating What Daddy Hates: Katie was in a relationship with Brendan Harris, whose family her father Jimmy hates as a result of Brendan's father having sent him to prison.
  • Deadly Prank: Katie was killed as a result of one.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: When Jimmy's two hired thugs take Dave to the bar, he sits in the back seat, staring out of the back window. It's an almost shot-for-shot recreation of the scene at the beginning of the movie in which Dave is abducted by the child predators. The implication is that Dave cannot escape the trauma of his past.
  • Downer Ending: You'd think that because Katie's killers were caught in the end, we'd get at least a Bittersweet Ending with heavy emphasis on bitter, right? Wrong. Dave is killed for ultimately no reason other than for Jimmy to find vengeance, leaving his wife widowed and his son fatherless. It's also heavily implied that Sean will be on Jimmy's trail from then on, effectively ruining that friendship and bringing Jimmy back into the life of crime.
  • 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.
  • Face Framed in Shadow: Dave's face is half covered in shadow when he is being interrogated by Jimmy.
  • Film of the Book: Though like many other adaptations, some details are changed.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Dave tells his wife that his soon-to-be-mugger told him, "Your money or your life. I'm leaving with one of them, bitch." She has a look of disbelief, even briefly questioning if that's really what the mugger said. There never was a mugger to begin with, hence why the threat sounded so fake. Dave made it up.
    • "Did you know there were child prostitutes in Rome Basin?" Dave certainly knows because he killed a child molester attempting to solicit one.
  • Four-Temperament Ensemble: Jimmy is choleric, Sean is melancholic and Dave is phlegmatic.
  • Freudian Trio: Jimmy is the id, Sean is the superego and Dave is the ego.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: The pedophiles who abduct Dave in the beginning of the movie. The act changes the lives of the three kids and their families for the worse.
  • He's Back!: Jimmy makes this decision at the end of the story, coming out of his retirement to seize control of Boston's criminal underworld.
  • 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."
    • The two brothers that Jimmy hires to commit crimes are also uncommonly close to one another.
  • Hollywood New England: Averted, actually. The movie is set in Boston and the characters do speak with distinctive Southie accents, but as Dennis Lehane is actually from the city and the movie was filmed on location there it is a reasonably accurate portrayal.
  • I Never Said It Was Poison: A variation. It doesn't happen in a traditional police interrogation setting, but Sean and Whitey figure out that the 911 callers who reported Katie's abandoned and bloodied car were involved in her death because one of them refers to her as "she" during the call when they would have had no way to know the driver's gender based on what they were claiming to have seen.
  • 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 scot-free. Although... it turns out Dave didn't kill Katie, so Jimmy killed him for nothing.
    • Karma Houdini Warranty: However, the ending heavily implies that Sean will be on Jimmy's case from now on, having heard him all but confess to murdering Dave.
  • 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, a man Jimmy murdered.
  • 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.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: Jimmy, Sean and Dave all first as kids playing hockey in the street before Dave is abducted. The action them jumps to the present day.
  • Not Proven: By the end of the story, Sean is sure that Jimmy was involved in the deaths of both "Just Ray" and Dave, if not the killer himself. But also knows how smart Jimmy is, and that can't prove it. He lets Jimmy know that he knows, though.
    Sean: You gonna send Celeste Boyle (Dave's wife) $500 every month too?
  • Old Friend: Sean has not seen Jimmy or Dave for a long time, but there's obviously still a close emotional connection between the three characters.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: Katie was only 19 years old when she was murdered.
  • Parental Abandonment: The motivation for the killing/fatal gun accident was that one of the killers' father had disappeared (was murdered) when he was young, and his older brother - who seems to have acted as a parental surrogate - was planning to run off with Jimmy's daughter. The killer had been planning to scare her into leaving without the killer's brother.
  • 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.
  • Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: The New York Times described the abduction and violation of Dave as the "primal violation of innocence" that sets the stage for the conflict.
    • In-Universe, the man soliciting a child prostitute that Dave kills.
  • "Ray of Hope" 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 and he gets away with it. But Sean swears to himself that he will make him answer for his crime and finds something good to feel in his newborn daughter. There's still plenty of conflict between these two.
  • 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, by the time of the story'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.
  • Skyward Scream: Jimmy does this when he arrives at the murder scene and figures out that the victim is his daughter.
  • Southies: All the major characters, with the exception of Sgt. Powers.
  • Stock Monster Symbolism: Dave develops a fixation on vampires and werewolves after his traumatic experience being molested because of their association with predatory urges and transformation, as he's afraid of becoming a molester himself.
  • The Stoic: Everybody. This is a Clint Eastwood film, after all.
  • 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.
    • Jimmy comments later in the film that (he feels like) they are all still locked in the car, and Sean and Jimmy reflect on what would have happened if they'd gotten in the car.
    • Sean is very protective of Dave early in the film, which is implied to be due to his sense of survivor guilt.
  • There Are No Therapists: Given that the police and child services knew what happened to Dave, he would almost certainly have spent a lot of time in therapy as a child. Given this, it's surprising how he doesn't seem familiar with any post-trauma coping skills and can't articulate what is happening to him more clearly.
  • Those Two Guys: The Savage Brothers.
  • 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. Subverted and 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.
    • Subverted and justified throughout the film, really. Dave continuously acts in bizarre and suspicious ways, with the implication being that the events on the night of the murder made his pre-existing trauma issues worse, and also that the intense shame and isolation he feels as a former victim of child abuse means he struggles to communicate with others or take care of his emotional needs.
  • True Companions: Sean, Jimmy and Dave were extremely close as children, right up until Dave's abduction.
  • Unable to Cry:
    • Lampshaded:
      Jimmy: "My own little daughter and I can't even cry for her."
      Dave: "Jimmy, you're crying now."
    • There's also Dave, who clearly wants/needs to cry in certain scenes (particularly the scene where he accuses his wife of thinking he was the murderer), but displays blunted emotions and so comes across as a sociopath. It's also an example of Shown Their Work, because people with trauma issues often can't cry even when they want to, and will also tend to dissociate or become alexithymic in the presence of a stressor, which can seem creepy to people who aren't familiar with how trauma works.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: None of the main characters are without their emotional moments, but there's a marked contrast between the sweet, trusting eight-year-olds you see at the beginning of the film and the hardened, dysfunctional adults they grow into, particularly the clearly troubled Dave and the crime boss Jimmy.
  • Villain Protagonist: Gradually the fitting title for Jimmy, an ex-con. While at first he seems like an Anti-Hero, the reveal of his murder of Just Ray and then of Dave along with his decision to cover it up, place him in this trope.
  • 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."