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Our movie maestro Thomas Wartenberg says that Clint Eastwood’s recent film Mystic River is a tragedy – but in the good sense of the word.
Although tragedy is one of the classical genres of drama, it does not translate easily onto the silver screen. While there are many film comedies, varying in form from slapstick to romance, there are far fewer examples of successful film tragedies. Certainly there have been some. Just the mention of Marcel Carné’s 1945 masterpiece Children of Paradise or Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 austere, neo-realist film The Bicycle Thief makes it clear that tragedy has been presented on the screen in convincing terms.
And yet I still have a sense that film is not a natural venue for tragedy. One possible reason for this has to do with film’s relation to melodrama. That popular art form became widespread during the late nineteenth century, as art became disseminated to a wider audience than ever before. Some theories of the form suggest that this broad audience explains the stylized and exaggerated nature of its emotional range. Given film’s imperative to reach as wide an audience as possible, melodrama has seemed to many theorists a more suitable form than the delicate emotional structure of classical tragedy.
The occasion for these reflections is the recent appearance of a genuine film tragedy: Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. The film, based upon the book by Dennis Lehane, explores the impact that the abduction and rape of a young boy by two pedophiles has on him and his two friends some twenty-five years later. What’s remarkable about the film is its ability to render this tale about three working-class Irish men in East Buckingham, a poor neighborhood in Boston, in terms that Aristotle argued apply more readily to the lives of the great and superior. Yet this film depicts the lives of three apparently ordinary men in just such archetypal terms.
What Eastwood has accomplished in the film is the presentation of the lives of three Boston working-class men as determined by factors over which they seem to have no control. Although the Greeks called this fate, recognition that our lives fit into patterns that are beyond our conscious control does not need to involve this mystical notion. Rather, it requires an acknowledgment that the everyday sense of control that many people presume to be adequate for reflecting on their lives has to give way to a broader perspective that takes account of the role of circumstances and the actions of other human beings in determining the outcome of an individual’s intentions. Still, it is useful to call this fate.
Although the film’s three protagonists had grown apart since their days as fast friends playing together on the streets of East Buckingham, they are brought together, as if by some ordained power, through the horrific murder of Katie Markum (Emmy Rossum), the beautiful daughter of Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn). Sean Devine (Kevin Bacon) is one of the two policemen called to investigate the case and, because of his former friendship with Markum, he remains tied to it. Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), who was abducted and repeatedly sodomized as a boy, still lives in the neighborhood and his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), is the cousin of Markum’s second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney). Boyle therefore finds himself drawn into the web of this murder as if by a magnet.
The earlier crime still exerts its influence over the lives of all three men. Markum and Devine are still haunted by their failure to stick by Boyle when the two men demanded that he enter their car. Boyle himself has never recovered from the episode that so dominates his life that, despite his conscious denial of its significance, he floats from one odd job to another. Katie’s murder brings the former crime to life once more by uniting these three men and their fates.
As the movie progresses, what dawns on us as it does on Boyle’s wife is that Boyle has committed this heinous murder. When he returns from a night of drinking in the early hours of the morning, his hand damaged and his clothes smeared with blood, Celeste does not question him. She simply cleans him up and disposes of his bloody clothes. But as the fact of Katie’s murder spreads, she slowly comes to believe that her husband killed her. And we, following her lead, accept that view, too.
Slowly, as the film grinds inexorably on, we learn that Boyle is really innocent. His semi-coherent ramblings allow us to see that he did kill someone that night: a pedophile he discovered outside the bar as he was leaving. His unconscious rage at his own violation overtakes him as he beats the pedophile senseless after freeing his victim. What’s tragic about this is that Boyle’s working-class masculinity makes it impossible for him to find a way to acknowledge what has happened to him and thereby to make peace with it. Instead it dominates his life in ways he cannot comprehend. Indeed, his ramblings about seeing things play a crucial role in convincing his wife that he is the murderer.
Markham is no less a victim of the limitations imposed by his own sense of masculinity. When he learns from Boyle’s wife that she suspects that he is the murderer, Markum must follow the only course that accords with his sense of himself: to avenge his daughter’s murder by murdering the murderer, much as Orestes must do in the Greek myth. The only problem is that Markum kills an innocent man. The scene of his doing so is incredibly powerful since, by now, we have learned that Katie’s murderer is a young boy who kills her in his own cycle of unredeemed violence. As we watch Markum exact what he thinks of as just retribution for Katie’s death, we are appalled. What we may not realize at the time, as Markum tells Boyle of his earlier execution of a criminal associate who ratted on him, is that the previous illegal exacting of retribution set in motion a chain of events that resulted so many years later in Katie’s death. The workings of fate may be ironic and indirect but they exact their payment nonetheless.
Finally, there’s Devine, the cop who is haunted by silent phone calls from the wife who has left him. Although Devine’s life is the one that is least clearly presented by the film, we do learn that he, too, has been devastated by the demands of his masculinity, for his wife has left him because he is unable to confide in her. Her haunting phone calls are made in hopes that somehow he will open up and fill the silence that pains him so deeply with an account of the ghosts that haunt him as well.
There are many deeply felt and superbly executed scenes in this film. One of the most chilling occurs between Jimmy and his wife, Annabeth, after he has confessed that he has killed an innocent man who was once his friend and who is his wife’s cousin’s husband. Instead of being appalled by what has transpired, Annabeth becomes aroused. We watch in horror as she reacts to Jimmy’s words by telling him – as her tongue feels its way down his body – that he has done what a real man has to do. The chill we feel comes from our awareness that the violent masculinity that has so appalled us is precisely what fulfills this woman’s desire.
Although the film softens its punches in the final scenes – most dramatically by showing us Devine’s wife reunited with him – it conveys a sense of the lives of these men as caught in a web from which there is no escape. Each in his own way is a victim of a rigid code of masculine honor that constricts their potential for achieving full humanity. The film’s ability to portray this difficult truth justifies the attribution to it of that term of critical approbation – used all too frequently and easily today – of a masterpiece.
© THOMAS E. WARTENBERG 2004
Thomas Wartenberg is the author of Unlikely Couples: Movie Romance as Social Criticism (Westview) and co-editor of Philosophy and Film (Routledge). He teaches philosophy and film studies at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.