In the fabric of humanity, there were three tiny strands: Sean, Jimmy and Dave. A trio of souls woven as tightly as you could imagine. They thought nothing could ever separate them. Until one of those threads got yanked. Hard. As children, while Jimmy and Sean stood on an unremarkable patch of Bostonian blacktop, two men who claimed to be cops took Dave away. Unbeknownst to the boys, they weren’t policemen; they were child molesters. Four days later Dave escaped and authorities seized the men. But the damage to Dave’s body and—more importantly—his mind was already done.
Twenty-five years later, Sean is a police officer. Jimmy (a reformed crook) owns a successful convenience store and has a family he adores. And Dave struggles through his quotidian, middle-class existence, beset by a creeping mental instability. The three friends haven’t seen one another for ages, but that will change—another thread has been yanked. One night Jimmy’s oldest daughter, Katie, is brutally murdered. By a jurisdictional fluke, Sean has been assigned to the case. And on the night of murder, Dave stumbled home, his hands and clothes covered in someone else’s blood. …
From childhood to adulthood, Sean repeatedly models a desire to see justice executed, despite his doubts about the effectiveness of the system. Though he is estranged from his wife, Sean gently turns down a female officer when she asks him out, citing his marital status. Brendan, Katie’s secret squeeze, learns sign language in order to bond with his mute brother. Jimmy displays a fierce devotion to his wife and children. Dave’s wife selflessly proffers her help to Jimmy’s family after Katie’s murder. [Spoiler Warning] Sean and his wife eventually reunite.
One of the child molesters wears a ring emblazoned with a cross, as well as a crucifix. Jimmy’s youngest daughter takes her first communion in a Roman Catholic church. Catholic artwork adorns several homes. When it’s discovered that the murdered girl is Jimmy’s daughter, a cop claims that God is extracting payment for a debt from the former gangster. While confessing to a murder, Jimmy says he felt God watching him and approving of his actions. Jimmy’s back bears a large cross tattoo.
Dave’s childhood sexual exploitation is a constantly reoccurring plot point, but, fortunately, its exposition is handled through brief flashbacks and dialogue that aren’t detailed. A child prostitute performs fellatio on a man (nothing explicit is seen). Katie and Brendan passionately kiss while discussing their plan to run off together. Jimmy and his wife vigorously make out on their bed.
Brief and isolated, but startlingly intense. Dave’s stomach is marred by a knife wound and his clothes soaked in blood. Flashbacks show him mercilessly pummeling a person’s face (with gory results) after being slashed with a sharp blade. Three men brutally brawl—one gets thrown across the room, another is punched multiple times and has his face stomped (his nose is shattered). The fight grinds to a halt when an assailant pulls a gun. A man is stabbed twice in the gut; blood covers his hands and torso. He is then shot (implied). The camera glimpses Katie’s bruised and battered body buried in mulched leaves. Shots of her at the morgue display her bloodied face. Brendan shoves his brother when he suggests his life is better without Katie. Police mob Jimmy and an associate when they try to break into a crime scene.
Crude or Profane Language
About 70 uses of the f-word, 20 of the s-word, and 20 other profanities and crudities. God’s name is abused a dozen times and Jesus’ only slightly fewer. A young man quickly flashes an obscene gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A lot of alcohol and tobacco get consumed during Mystic River’s 135-minute running time. Sean and Jimmy’s fathers puff away on cigarettes while lounging on a porch. Dave, Jimmy and Sean also inhale at various times in their adult lives. Jimmy sells cigarettes at his convenience store. Just before she is murdered, Katie shows up in a bar with her friends and all of them get roaring drunk. Jimmy’s father-in-law brings a case of beer to Jimmy’s house. Jimmy’s wife downs a sleeping pill and takes up smoking after a decade of abstinence. Nearly everyone swills beer and liquor, some to excess. Dave is lured into drunkenness by a pair of goons (he runs outside to vomit). Jimmy gets smashed while sipping grog outside his house.
Other Negative Elements
Mystic River’s subject matter (child molestation and murder, loneliness, grief, emotional abuse, revenge and vigilantism) isn’t negative per se, but the film fixates and stares for so long and so intently that it becomes unhealthy. Also, Dave lies repeatedly about where he was the night of Katie’s murder and how he was wounded.
Mystic River’s author, Dennis Lehane, almost didn’t let his novel get a Hollywood makeover. Too many suggestions that he radically alter his grim work frustrated him to the point where he pulled it off the market. Then Clint Eastwood called. “[It] was a true collaboration,” Lehane told the Los Angeles Daily News, not the one-sided takeovers most authors experience. “He would listen. He wouldn’t always agree with me, but he would listen.”
Perhaps Lehane’s close involvement is why Mystic River plays out like a scene-for-scene adaptation of the book. But it's not a mechanical re-rendering. The Eastwood-helmed project evokes the same mingling of awe and dejection as Lehane’s pen-and-paper version. Those might seem like strange descriptors, but they’re particularly apropos: On the one hand (or, perhaps, shore) the movie shines with truly stunning storytelling, rife with rich characterizations and compelling plot work. Sean Penn’s performance as a heartbroken ex-con mourning his daughter’s murder stands out, but every actor excels here. The cinematography is crisp (possibly Eastwood's best), the subtle symbolism is compelling and the mournfully menacing mood is almost tangible. But the other hand deals from a different deck of cards. This well-done yarn contains constant obscenities, forceful violence and subject material that moves beyond "mournful" into a bleakness sure to send even the most well-adjusted moviegoer into a funk. (The combination of pedophilia, murder and insanity is devastating.) The greatest acting or tightest pacing in the world couldn't wash away those stains.