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Mystic River

September 14, 2015

MRThree violent incidents haunt the residents of a rundown urban community in this moving, crime drama.

Themes: honesty, revenge, justice and redemption.

In the beginning of the movie when a young Dave is thrown into the backseat of the car, a man in the front seat turns around and flashes his ring – a bishop’s ring. The book never indicates that the character was a priest, but it was added to the film since the filming was right in the middle of the priest scandal in the Boston Archdiocese.

“As the plot moves toward its climax, the viewer is moved back and forth between scenes of Jimmy and his thugs confronting Dave, and Sean and his partner confronting Katie’s real murderers. Lusting for vengeance, Jimmy demands a confession from Dave and promises, “Admit what you did and I’ll let you live.” Dave falsely confesses in hopes of saving his own life. Jimmy stabs him and then shoots him in the head, saying “We bury our sins here, Dave. We wash them clean.” The body is dumped into the river at the same spot where Jimmy committed his first murder, the one that has inexorably led to his own daughter’s death. We do not learn until the end of the movie that Dave was indeed guilty of murder – of a pedophile he saw having sex with a child prostitute on the same night Katie died.

“Religious language is (except for Jimmy’s reference to washing away sins through murder) absent from Mystic River. However, there is explicitly religious visual imagery that insists the viewer make cognitive and emotional connection between the events portrayed and Christianity. Because the religious allusions are nonverbal, unless the viewer consciously reflects on the film as a whole, the tendency will be to focus on the most cinematically-striking of these scenes and to misinterpret it. In the scene in question, Jimmy stands shirtless looking out the bedroom window, and we see tattooed on his back a large Christian cross that extends from his neck to the middle of his back. Taken in isolation, this scene could mean that the viewer ought to see Jimmy as a Christ-figure. He is, after all, a suffering man with a cross on his back, albeit made of ink rather than wood. But Jimmy does not fit the bill as a Christ-figure. A Christ-figure is an innocent victim for whose suffering we are responsible and through whose suffering we are redeemed. No one in the film, much less Jimmy, meets these criteria. The scene (indeed the entire story) is tragic, but the character is not a hero; he is a vengeful murderer and thief: His suffering here is from the guilt of having killed the wrong man. The tragic nature of the scene is located in the obscenity of it; the Christian symbol of redemption has been co-opted by the evil-doer. And this is not the only time a Christian cross draws the viewers’ attention.

“When the cross does appear most visibly, it is worn by the most heinous of the victimizers: Jimmy and one of the men who sexually abused Dave.”9 In the movie’s opening scene one abductor waits in the car while the other gets Dave into the back seat. As the first abductor turns around to smile at Dave, he puts his right hand over the seat. On the hand is a gold ring decorated with a cross. In a later scene, this pedophile approaches Dave in the semidarkness of the hide-away and we briefly glimpse a cross on a chain around the man’s neck.

“These scenes are disturbing because they simultaneously raise questions about the nature of God, evil, and salvation. Where is God in a world of sexual predators who feel no discomfort wearing the symbol of Christian redemption? Is it not evil that a cold-blooded murderer so identifies with Christian symbolism that he has it permanently inked into his skin? What is salvation in a world such as this? These scenes nonverbally convey the truth that the cross has become an empty symbol at best, “an instrument of domination” at worst.” The molester’s ring and Jimmy’s tattoo call to mind Dorothee Sölle’s story of a friend who was arrested by corrupt police in Argentina. During her arrest, the woman was blindfolded and interrogated for two nights by several men. At some point, she pled for mercy and said she was a Christian. One of her interrogators began to laugh and said ” ‘Why are you telling us that? I too am a Catholic’.” He then put her hand on his bare chest so that she could feel the cross he was wearing. “It was a profound shock for my friend,” Sölle says, “that … a sadist, a torturer” should claim the cross as his symbol.”  What was once a symbol of triumph over tyranny has itself become a symbol of oppression.

“The film also raises issues related to the complicity of Christian teachings in undermining the moral agency of women.” Dependence and submission are the primary modes of being for the women of Mystic River. The only strong women in the film are Katie’s boyfriend’s mother, who (as befits the cultural reading of strength in women as “bitchiness”) is a shrew, and Sean’s wife, who is invisible. The ideal of feminine virginity fused with masculine violence is symbolized in the first communion scene: the murderer’s daughter walks down the aisle dressed in white dress and veil, symbolically to be wedded to the church’s teachings. The ideal of wifely submission is artfully portrayed in the relationship between Jimmy and his wife. She knows that her husband is a murderer, yet she does not turn away from him. Annabeth encourages and comforts Jimmy, telling him he is a good man who has done what any loving father would. In the only sexual scene of the movie, Annabeth, the Ideal Wife, gives her body to her man as the ultimate form of solace for his murderous guilt.

“Annabeth and Jimmy are proud parents when their daughter partakes of the Body of Christ for the first time. Were the church adequately manifesting its primary aims in the world, we anticipate that the emotion attached to this spiritual event ought to spill over into a lived spirituality for these people. And yet, although Jimmy feels guilt at having murdered, it is only guilt for having killed the wrong man. Further, Annabeth, is a willing accomplice to murder. The Eucharist is for these people nothing more than a rite of passage. The primary aims of the church in offering communion have been so infected with absolutist claims that they no longer operate to make Christ a felt-presence.

“There is no happy ending here.  It is only through Sean that we see the slightest hint at redemption. In the final scene, the neighborhood is gathered for a parade. We see pathetic Celeste running alongside her son’s float, calling out to him in an attempt to cheer him. We see Jimmy, supported by his loving wife, surrounded by his faithful thugs. And we see Sean, reunited with his family. On the surface, it seems that Jimmy has gotten away with murder once again. But Sean, standing across the street, catches Jimmy’s eye, raises his hand and signals. Sean, police detective and cultural symbol of the good, aims his fingers in the classic masculine imitation of a gun. He winks at Jimmy and completes the gesture, squeezing the imaginary trigger. In the gesture there is perhaps a glimmer of hope. Sean seems to be saying “I’ve got you in my sights.”

“We are left with the visual promise that striving for justice has not ceased. Like Jesus’ disciples who heard but did not understand, who sensed the meaning of his parables but could not articulate it, the viewer leaves Mystic River disturbed, hearing the faint whisper of parable: “In the evils portrayed here, you too are implicated.”” Mystic River: A Parable of Christianity’s Dark Side by Charlene P. E. Burns

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