Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” : The Philosophy and the Deeper Meaning

Clint Eastwood’s disturbing yet surreal thriller Mystic River is one of my favorite films of all time. We all know how brilliant the execution was and how well the cast did in the movie. Some consider it as the movie with the “best” lead ensemble cast – Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars for Best Actor and Supporting Actor respectively, a first for any film after BenHur (1959). But what shook me most was not the brilliant story (adapted from a novel of the same name) or the casting, but the hidden agenda behind bringing it to celluloid.

SynopsisDirected by Clint Eastwood, the mysterious drama Mystic River is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane and adapted by screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Set in an Irish neighborhood in Boston, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave are three childhood friends who are reunited after a brutal murder takes place. Reformed convict Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) and his devoted wife Annabeth (Laura Linney) find out that their teenage daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) has been beaten and killed. Jimmy’s old friend Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is the homicide detective assigned to the case, along with partner Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne). Jimmy also gets his relatives, the Savage brothers (Adam Nelson and Robert Wahlberg), to conduct an investigation of their own. Jimmy and Sean both start to suspect their old pal, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who lives a quiet life with his wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) but harbors some disturbing secrets.


What Eastwood has accomplished in the film is the near perfect presentation of the lives of three Boston working-class men as determined by factors over which they seem to have no control… simply called as FATE. Recognition of the fact that our lives fit into patterns that are beyond our conscious control does not need to involve this mystical idea. Sometimes the FATE will decide the outcomes of our doings, irrespective of the intentions behind it.

Every adult human being has the chance to choose a personally favored path of life (considering it isn’t predetermined by illnesses, accidents etc.), but the general direction this path heads towards will usually already be marked during childhood: This might be the idea which provoked Dennis Lehane to write about the various faces of humanity and the fateful consequences one single deed might release to weigh heavily upon your conscience for the rest of your life – even if it is something as simple as not entering a certain car while you are a kid.

One of the wonderful things about the film is that it leads us to embrace the truth of two statements – one being the victim of childhood incidents which changes the psyche of many as they attain adulthood and second, the responses of different individuals are not same to those incidents. All the three primary characters are affected but their responses are varied – Tim Robbins is affected with a bipolar response in adulthood, Sean Penn is impulsive and violent in his deeds while Kevin Bacon is the patient guy who gets rewarded with his wife coming back to him in the end.

The characters are to varying degrees and in varying proportions both victims and perpetrators. And that is what life makes us, we mentally shape up differently in different situations and again, our response to these situations will decide the outcome, which many times may not be in our hands.


Mystic River is one of those rare movies which adapts a tragedy in a perfect way. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins and Kevin Bacon are exceptional in their acts and you just cannot imagine anyone in these roles. If you still haven’t watched it, do it now. And if you have already, watch it again.