Swimming in the Mystic River
I wrote this quite a while ago. Back when the movie came out in 2003. One of my kids watched it for the first time and I was reminded of this essay. Enjoy.
Three boys poised over fresh cement scratching their names into it forever with a piece of wood. Three lives that will forever be plunged into a black abyss, like a street-hockey ball hit too hard with the wooden stick, lost in the dark chasm of a storm drain under the street. Jimmy, Dave and Sean will all be marked for the rest of their lives. This, because of two men that appear as Dave begins writing his name into the soft sidewalk. Dave never finishes scribing it; he is taken by these evil men, wolves that steal.
These three boys become the men of Mystic River. Jimmy Markum, a man who is covered by markings in tattoos, but who is also marked in his soul. Dave Boyle, abducted as a young boy, had his childhood taken from him, and Sean Devine, the detective who must divine the answer to the mystery of murder.
Jimmy Markum is like a hinge on which Sean and Dave turn. In other words, they are connected to Jimmy but not to each other. In fact, both Dave and Sean clarify throughout the movie that neither is the friend of the other. In the Roman Basin community Jimmy is a type of godfather, revered. His role is often presented like a priest or cardinal. He believes it to be his neighborhood. Jimmy’s wife is Anna Beth, a character who is purposely like Lady Macbeth, a woman who will believe and do anything to support her husband, even murder.
When Sean Devine discovers the body of Jimmy’s daughter he wonders to himself out loud about how he is going to tell Jimmy, “Hey Jimmy, God said you owed another marker…He came to collect.” So, even as Jimmy thinks he is in control of things, his life is marked again by something beyond his power, the brutal killing of his daughter.
Dave Boyle describes himself like this, “A man who was not a man but a boy escaped from wolves, living in a world others never saw.” Just as he never finished writing his name in the concrete, a part of him is still a boy, thus the name Boyle. Dave’s boyhood was stolen from him as he tells Jimmy, “I had a dream of youth…I don’t remember having one.” His childlike behavior is shown by the stories he makes up about why his hand is injured. It is obvious that people doubt him, he does not realize this. Dave also believes that he is infected from the wolves (two men) who abducted him, and that he is “bitten”. When Dave’s wife comes home one evening she finds him watching, of all things, a vampire movie. It is at this moment he reveals to his wife his conviction that he has become a vampire or werewolf, a living dead. He tells her that “Once it is in you it stays,” and that, “Dave is dead.” This “deadness” is displayed in his character as he walks around with a lethargic zombie-like countenance.
Dave’s wife is Celeste, but her character is far from the heavenly idea of her name. Her true name is Celeste Savage as her cousins are the “Savage Brothers”. Put this way, it sounds like “Heavenly Savage” or fallen angel. A bad wife, she doubts her husband at every turn.
Being faithful to his name, Sean Devine is the one character who has escaped or risen above the neighborhood. In fact, the scene that introduces the adult Devine is from a high bridge as he looks down upon his old neighborhood. He must literally descend into it to investigate a murder. Sean understands things that Jimmy and Dave do not. He seeks truth. Sean seems the least affected by the abduction of Dave so many years before. This lack of connection is also a lack of compassion which plays out in his relationship with his wife. She is shown at certain points in the film as only a face, listening on a phone but not speaking; she is, in a sense, mute.
Because Dave Boyle is a man stuck in his past, he is trapped within the very real nightmare of being abducted and abused. He is unable to escape it both figuratively, in the idea of the undead, and literally as his fate is decided twice by men who take him away in a car. His past is his present and he tries to destroy it by murdering a pedophile. As was mentioned earlier he is convinced that he has become a living dead, much like a vampire or werewolf preying on the lives of others. This because Dave was the only one of the three boys physically abducted as a child, the other two are not unaffected.
Jimmy tries to cover up his anxiety about Dave’s abduction and thinks he is in control, but the past haunts him incessantly. The moment Sean Devine interviews him after the murder Jimmy pours out his feelings about Dave’s abduction. Why? Jimmy is a man marked by the past. He has tried to cover it up, literally by tattoos. And as the film pans out his past marks him more than he can readily see. It seems that from the time Jimmy witnessed Dave Boyle’s abduction to his current frustration and anger over his daughter’s death, Dave has become an abscess in Jimmy’s life, a type of boil, and Jimmy wants relief.
Jimmy’s frustrations cause faulty reasoning that culminates in murder. When Celeste shows up at his front door, her role as a bad wife, a fallen angel, is fulfilled. She sits beside Jimmy and confesses that she thinks her husband killed Jimmy’s daughter. She is a tempter. She knows who Jimmy is, she knows what Jimmy does. She doesn’t go to the police with her information, she goes to Jimmy. As Anna Beth points out later, “What kind of wife says those things about her husband? And why'd she run to you?” Celeste is a deceiver and knows that she is using Jimmy to kill Dave. Who wants a living dead for a husband anyway?
Jimmy has the Savage brothers pick Dave up in a scene reminiscent of Dave’s original abduction. Even Dave seems to recognize the situation, but gets in the car anyway. It is as if his life has come full circle and he realizes what is about to happen.
Sean ultimately discovers the identity of the killer. Ironically, Brendan Harris, the son of “Just Ray” Harris, a man Jimmy had killed years ago, was in love with Katie Markum, Jimmy’s daughter. But the ultimate irony is that the second son of that same murdered man, a mute boy named Ray, is the one who killed her.
Before Sean can tell Jimmy about Ray Harris, Jimmy has reached a boiling point and confronts Dave. He forces Dave to confess to the killing but Dave insists that he killed a pedophile, not Jimmy’s daughter. Jimmy offers Dave a false hope of forgiveness, that if he confesses to killing his daughter, he will let Dave live. Jimmy eventually kills Dave by means of two unique methods. He stabs him, which is the way one would kill a vampire (and lance a boil). Then he shoots him, which would be the proper method to kill a werewolf. Jimmy does this because he refuses to look into is own heart and see the decisions and events of the past and how they mark his life. Jimmy thinks that it was Dave and Dave’s past that has caused all his personal anguish. He takes his revenge out on a man innocent of his daughter’s murder. He hopes that this will relieve his anger and pain to allow healing. But Jimmy essentially kills a dead man; a man who died as a boy and has been living like the undead, a vampire or werewolf.
A fascinating idea is revealed when Sean confronts Jimmy about Dave’s disappearance.
Sean says, “So Jimmy, when was the last time you saw Dave?”
Jimmy says, “The last time I saw Dave...”
“Yeah, Dave Boyle.”
“Yeah Jimmy, Dave Boyle.”
“That was twenty-five years ago, going up this street, in the back of that car.”
In other words, Dave hasn’t been around since they were kids. Dave Boyle never returned from that abduction. Then Sean wonders aloud, “Sometimes I think all three of us got into that car and we are all still eleven-year-old boys locked in a cellar imagining what life would be like if we escaped.” He is saying they were all infected.
A few questions seem to remain. What will happen to Jimmy Markum? And why does Sean Devine’s wife act mute?
Jimmy will not change. He is human and cares only for himself and what he thinks or wants. His half-hearted repentance is quickly squashed by his wife in a speech much like something Lady MacBeth would give, “Daddy [Jimmy] is a king and does whatever he has to for those he loves. That is all that matters. That can never be wrong.” She continues, “We will never be weak,” and concludes with, “You could rule this town.” It is easy to conclude that Jimmy will continue to mar up his life with human error.
Why are two characters mute? Sean has a barrier of understanding with his wife, they cannot communicate. She plays mute to all his pleadings. She simply listens. Brendan discovers his brother’s involvement in the killing of his girlfriend Katie and confronts Ray about it in a violent scene. “You love me so much you gotta kill my … girlfriend, huh? Speak you … freak, or I will … kill you! Katie. Say it! Say it or you die!”
Sean Devine however, offers up an apology to his wife. An asking of forgiveness and his wife suddenly speaks. They become reconciled.
Unresolved issues that cause personal emotional barriers are what fuel the underlying conflicts in this film. This type of conflict can only be resolved finally by true repentance and forgiveness. The two mute characters embody contrasting views of love and forgiveness. Brendan Harris’s brother, Ray, and Sean Devine’s wife, Lauren, both have minor, yet critical roles. Ray is the portrait of selfish love that causes death and separation as seen in Jimmy and Dave’s lives. Sean and Lauren are the portrait of forgiving love.
By the movie’s end, Sean Devine is the one character that is truly "redeemed". He admits his wrongdoing and asks forgiveness by saying he is sorry. His wife finally speaks connecting their severed relationship. Without right confession life continues in deadness; like Dave Boyle who childishly hoped that he was living but only realized too late that he was actually dead. Without correct repentance one will continue in selfish endeavors; like Jimmy Markum who is reaffirmed in his own murderous intentions. Proper confession is not for the benefit of oneself. One confesses to repent, to change and be reconciled shown finally in the forgiveness of the Devines.