Skip to content

Mystic River


As I watched this movie, I was in awe. It instantly sucked me into its world and did not spit me out until well after it ended. Yet I was also left with a sense of confusion; things did not quite come together for me. I was not sure how everything was related or what I was supposed to gather from it. There was a definite point it was trying to make, but hard as I tried I could not put my finger on what it was.

The more I thought about it, the more I came back to the events in the three main characters’ youth, a definite recurring theme. Yet, I still felt like I was missing a piece of the puzzle. The characters in this film are very structured. Everyone seems to be organized into groups, and each group is related to the other. That was the key to my understanding of this film.

Some would say that a youth cannot survive without a family or someone to care for them. It could also be said that a family cannot survive without its youth. Youth brings new life and new love into any family, and what is a family without love? The one cannot survive without the other. Mystic River is a film about the importance of youth, the family unit, and their interdependence. This importance is stressed throughout the movie through various techniques of lighting, cinematography and writing. These visual techniques serve to accentuate the theme and aid in the flow of the complicated storyline.

Development of Theme through Writing
The story is a typical detective story. It follows all the rules. Everything needed to solve the murder was made known to the viewer, it was solved using deductive reasoning and logic, the murderer was a principal character, and most importantly, the solution was not revealed before the denouement. Yet, formulaic as it was, there is a much deeper element to this story. It deals with the inner emotions of three childhood friends, and the way they react to devastating events. This deeper conflict is almost Shakespearean in nature. All three friends are pitted against each other at one point or another. It is almost like three families conspiring against each other, though closely related. It is this Shakespearean conflict that develops the theme and makes the story so much more than another murder mystery.
The conflicting families can be traced back to the inner conflict of each of the three main characters. Sean, played by Kevin Bacon, struggles with the breakup of his marriage, or the loss of his wife. She is the representation of youth in his life. She calls regularly, not speaking, almost as if playing a game, much like a schoolgirl calling the boy she likes and hanging up. He plays along, smiling, talking about his life, asking questions, knowing he will get no response. She was carrying his baby when she left, but he does not even know its name. She carries knew life, but it is well out of his reach.

The reasons for losing his wife can be traced back to his own youth, and the abduction of his friend. He has become a policeman, and has dedicated his life to stopping the things seen in his youth. His early family of friends was destroyed, and he will do anything to try and make things right. He feels guilty for what happened that day and will do anything to correct it. Thus he pushes his wife away, seeking his youth and ignoring his family.

Sean Penn’s character, Jimmy is faced both with the loss of his first wife and his oldest daughter. He married young the first time, and the main thing that attracted him to her was her youthful attitude, she was full of life. He was unable to be at her side as she died, it was as if his youth had been taken from him. However, he still had his daughter, and thus still had his youth, at least until she is murdered, and his youth is taken from him once again.

Jimmy reacts to this loss in a much different way than Sean. Jimmy has become a criminal. He hates cops. Perhaps this is because of the fake cop that broke up the early family of friends. Whatever the case, he has now dedicated his life to protecting his daughter and his family from the evils of the world. Instead of pushing others away, however, he uses his family of criminals to track down those who stole his youth in an attempt to make things right.

Tim Robbins plays the third member of the childhood family, Dave, who has lost innocence and his own youth. As a result, he develops a close relationship with his boy and avoids everyone else. He is a loner, he trusts no one, and has closed himself off to the world and its evils, including his wife. Without his youth, he was never able to develop the lasting bonds necessary for a family, so his wife does not fully know him or trust him.

Striving to fill the voids left by each of their losses, each member of the childhood family is brought back together and pitted against each other. In his search for his daughter’s killer, Jimmy is led to Dave. Dave protects another boy’s youth, thus conquering his inner demons, but without the bonds of family, he is betrayed and loses everything, but is given new life. Jimmy kills Dave in an attempt to fix the loss of his daughter, or the embodiment of his youth. He however, is saved by his wife, who shows him that he still has a family and children who still have their own youth that needs protecting. Sean finds the real killer and in so doing learns that youth without a family is nothing. The next time his wife calls, he apologizes for pushing her away, realizing that he too has new youth to protect.

Development of Theme through Lighting

Clint Eastwood uses every element he can to give each character a distinct personality. In this way he sucks the viewer into his world and makes them believe it. Through techniques in lighting, he personifies the traits of each of the childhood friends and their individual losses, thus stressing the interdependence of youth and family.

Lighting is most used to portray youth. The lighting at the beginning of the film is much brighter than the rest of it. It is very high-key, making their childhood very vivid and cheerful. After the abduction, however, it goes to black and changes to low-key after the murder of Jimmy’s daughter. Their lives are no longer vivid and this seems to add to the intensity of the conflicts they now have. At Dave’s murder, the screen goes white, for Dave has started a new life, and the film switches back to high key as Sean and Jimmy are reunited with their families and start their lives anew.

Both Jimmy and Dave are lit very distinctly through the middle of the movie. After his daughter’s murder, Jimmy rarely enters the sunlight, and when he does, he is wearing sunglasses. He is always covered in sharp shadows that hide his face and add to his pain. It is not until the end of the movie that he removes his sunglasses and welcomes in the youthful light.

Dave is lit almost the same way as Jimmy, but Dave’s shadows are a little softer. This creates more of a feel of isolation than fear or mystery shown through Jimmy’s lighting. Dave is passive and vulnerable, so his lighting is a lot more inviting, yet because of the shadows, one is left in suspicion. He refuses to let anyone close to him, so even when talking with his wife, his face is masked by shadow. This aids in validating her suspicions. The only time Dave is shown in the light is when he is with his son, the only one to whom he opens up.

Sean is the outsider. His face is always visible, making him trustworthy, but he is never brought into the low-key lighting of his old friends. He never speaks to them outside at night. If he does talk to them at night, he does so indoors and is always well lit. However, this lighting is different than the lighting from the beginning; it is much softer and not as bright or vivid. It is almost as if he is trying to go back to his youth or at least enter the world of his childhood friends but never quite makes it. In the end, he is back in the bright, vivid sunlight. He has found his place, with his wife and new daughter.

Development of Theme through Cinematography

Cinematography is used much in the same way the lighting was. Each friend is shot in a different way throughout the entire movie. Jimmy is shot with a lot of tight shots. His body is rarely seen because his face is where the emotion is. He is in pain, and Eastwood wants that pain to shoot through the screen and pierce the viewer. It is only through this pain that the viewer can understand Jimmy’s actions. It is only when with his family that his full body is seen.

Dave is usually shown with medium shots, but he is almost always obstructed in some way. He is shot behind staircases and desks when around others to show the barriers he has placed between himself and everyone around him. This adds to his suspiciousness. When alone, he is given lots of headroom and there is lots of empty space around him. This adds to his solitude. The medium shot adds to his vulnerability. He is open to attack, but is just closed enough to limit its effects. Once again, it is only with his boy that he is left unobstructed and the sense of solitude is eliminated.

Sean, the outsider, is given a lot of wide or long shots, especially when around the other two. He is never viewed as part of the community and thus maintains a sense of professionalism and objectivity. He can be trusted because his whole body is shown most of the time and he is rarely obstructed in any way. It is only at the end when he is with his wife that we see a close-up, for he is no longer an outsider; he has youth and family once again.

The conflict between the families is never resolved, but this is what adds the Shakespearean element to this film. It is not a happy ending, but tragedies never are. This movie leaves you with questions and you doubt that this could happen in real life. Shakespearean tragedies do the same thing. It makes the reader, or the viewer, look at his or her own life. It leaves an unsettling feeling, which stresses the importance of the message even further. The viewer is left to deal with the unresolved conflicts his or herself. The viewer is left to look at their own youth and family and ask him or herself how a loss of either would affect his or her life.