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**Warning: Spoilers for both book and movie!**
Mystic River by Dennis Lehane (2001)
Mystic River directed by Clint Eastwood (2003)
I know, I have already done two Lehane books, making this one the third I have covered. Even though this was on my list to cover eventually, it got moved up to first due to a listener requesting it! If you would like to request a book/movie, comment below!
Mystic River came out in 2003 and was nominated for a number of Oscars at the 2004 Academy Awards. The 2004 Oscars are one of the years I happen to remember really well! Billy Crystal hosted, and I thought he was hilarious, Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won just about every award it was nominated for, so much so that it was kind of annoying! The first Pirates of the Caribbean had also come out in 2003, and that kicked off my Johnny Depp phase, so I remember hoping PotC would win some awards, including Depp for best actor but he lost out to none other than Sean Penn for Mystic River!
Since I remember that year’s Oscars so well, I was of course aware of Mystic River, plus my family are also Clint Eastwood fans. Yet, this movie kind of slipped away and I never ended up watching it. I went into the book and movie, really knowing nothing. All I remembered was the scene from the movie where Sean Penn is yelling while being held back from police, and I seemed to recall it was about a kidnapping or something. I love going into books and movies knowing very little about the plot, because it all comes as a surprise.
This book starts out with the kidnapping of a character, and since that’s what I recalled it being about, I assumed the kid was gone for good. I was surprised to read a few pages later that he escapes and is returned to his family! So, it’s just always a good time going into a story having no idea what direction things will take.
I’ll keep this brief, but we have three boys-Jimmy, Sean and Dave. One day they are fighting in the street when two men drive up, claiming to be cops. They get Dave to get in the car and drive off with him. Turns out the men were not cops, and Dave has been kidnapped. Four days later, he is able to run away from them and is returned to his mom.
Fast-forward about fifteen years, the three are still living in the same town when Jimmy’s daughter, Katie, is found dead. Long story short-Dave’s wife, Celeste, thinks Dave did it because the night she was killed he had come home late covered in blood. The story he gives on where the blood comes from has a lot of holes and she knows he is lying. Dave himself seems to be going a little crazy, due to the memories of his past kidnapping and molestation coming to the surface. Sean is the cop in charge of catching the killer, so this reignites his relationship with Dave and Jimmy.
Celeste ends up confiding in Jimmy that she thinks Dave killed his daughter and Jimmy kills Dave. At the same time Jimmy is doing that, Sean discovers who the real killers are and arrests them. The next day he finds Jimmy and gives him the news. Jimmy is of course taken by surprise, because he thought Dave did it. Sean knows Jimmy killed Dave but doesn’t have hard evidence to lock him up for it. And that’s gist of it.
Oh, actually I totally forgot about the blood on Dave. He claimed he was mugged, and he killed the mugger. The truth though is that he saw a 12 year old boy hooking outside a bar and was tempted to give in to this temptation that has been plaguing him. He then sees the boy get into another person’s car, and they drive to a more secluded part of the parking lot. Dave goes over to the car and kills the man, and the boy runs off and leaves town. Dave hides the body in the man’s trunk, and it is eventually found but by this time Dave himself has been killed.
Thoughts on the book
There are a lot of complicated themes going on in this book, and I think that’s why it became so popular. Dave, Jimmy and Sean share the lead role, and we see into each of their inner monologues. Sean is probably the least interesting of the three, whereas Jimmy and Dave have more complex and intriguing things going on in their lives. Dave’s story is so tragic, and at times disturbing. He had this horrible, traumatic thing happen to him when he was a boy and was never able to talk about it and deal with it in a healthy way. In the book, he arrives home and tries to say something to his mom about it, but she shows she has no interest in discussing it and just starts talking about something else. This thing that happened, then grows inside of him, and has he gets older, his past pain starts to make him go kind of crazy. We’ll go more into detail on that a little later.
Jimmy had criminal tendencies starting at a young age, and by 17 he was in charge of his own ‘crew’. At 20 he is sent to prison because a guy named Just Ray ratted him out. While he is in prison, his wife gets cancer and dies before he is released. Once he is out, he is left to take care of the young daughter they’d had together. He goes straight, remarries and has two more kids. Oh, and when he is released, he kills Just Ray.
We also see into Celeste’s thoughts, which I really liked. People who have only seen the movie, have such a horrible opinion of her, since it’s her fault Dave is killed. However, being able to see into her head, gives you more sympathy and pity for her and what she was going through.
The book really sucks you in and is hard to put down! Some of the stuff with Sean and what’s going on in his life is kind of boring, but aside from that it really had me. It also keeps you guessing on who it is that killed Katie. At times it seems pretty convincing that it was Dave, but then there are certain things not adding up to him being the killer and you have to rethink the whole thing.
All in all, it is a great book. Because it deals with child molestation, it’s not one I would recommend to just anyone though. It never gets explicit with it, but it doesn’t have to. Just alluding to what happened to Dave is upsetting enough as it is.
There is one plot hole so to speak I kept thing: so Dave’s only family is his mom who is mentally ill. Kids and adults in the town don’t like being associated with him when he returns, and there is a part where Celeste is talking about how Dave is so at ease and social when he’s around people who don’t know about his past. But when he’s with someone who does, he gets uncomfortable. My question is, why did he stay in town?? Not like anything was holding him there. Once he turned 18, he could have gone somewhere far enough where it wasn’t common knowledge and who knows, maybe life would have been better to some degree.
Sean Penn, as said above, won as Oscar for his role of Jimmy. He really is great in this. I think he was perfectly cast and is just fantastic. The loving father, who is heartbroken by the murder of his daughter, while also being a hardened ex-con who is willing to kill a man in order to avenge his daughter.
Tim Robbins also won an Oscar for this movie. He plays Dave and is also perfectly cast. Dave is described as a very nonthreatening person, who looks younger than his years due to his soft face. When reading, I kept imaging David Harbour, even though he is not at all the way Dave is described. But in those scenes when Dave is saying these crazy things and is scary, it was hard not to imagine someone who had a scary look. Robbins does amazing though, portraying the man who is suffering from his past, and is losing touch with the world more and more as the book goes on. While also being a tragic character who just needs more kindness and understanding in his life.
Kevin Bacon is solid as Sean. This role was actually given to Michael Keaton and he had spent time shadowing the Boston police in preparation. A few weeks before shooting, he got in an argument with director Clint Eastwood, and left the film. Bacon was then offered the role; I actually don’t think Keaton or Bacon were the best choice. Regardless, Bacon gives a solid performance and I have no complaints with his acting. I just don’t think he and Keaton fit the description given in the book.
Marcia Gay Harden gives an amazing performance as Celeste. She was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Renee Zellweger for Cold Mountain. She did win an Oscar in 2001 though for her role in the movie Pollock. The scene that really stood out to me was the very end, when the parade is happening.
Laura Linney plays Jimmy’s second wife, Annabeth. She had more scenes in the book, and I was kind of disappointed they cut her character down some. Linney was filming Love Actually at the same time and was flying back and forth between Boston and England! Sounds exhausting!
We also have Laurence Fishbourne who plays Sean’s detective partner. Then Tom Guiry who isn’t in too much, but gives a fantastic job playing Katies boyfriend, Brenden. He has some intense scenes and is just so great! A 17 year old Emmy Rossum plays Katie and is very fitting for the role. Eli Wallach shows up in a brief role as the owner of Looney Liquor. He and Eastwood were of course in the movie The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly together! It’s cool to see them working together again.
Not acting, but fun fact- Clint Eastwood also did the score for this movie! I knew he liked jazz and classical music, but I had no idea he wrote music!
Difference in their childhood
Starting at the beginning, there are some changes made to their childhood. For starters, it is explained that all three live in the town of East Buckingham, but Sean lives in the Point and Jimmy and Dave are in the Flats. The Point is where the richer folk live, and the Flats are for the poorer folk and criminals. Sean’s dad is friends with Jimmy’s dad; hence he and Jimmy will hang out, mainly on weekends because kids in the Flats and kids in the Point go to different schools. Dave ends up being part of the group but is kind of a third wheel. He’s just always there but doesn’t always contribute much to the group. Sean is shown to be the boy with the most going for him and doesn’t want to ruin his future by doing some of the shenanigans Jimmy suggests.
When Dave is taken, Jimmy suggests they steal a car and just drive it around the block. For a second Sean considers this, then realizes he would be foolish to jeopardize his future and disappoint his parents by doing that. Jimmy is upset, and Dave pushes Sean or something like that, because he too had wanted to get a car. Sean hits him back, and all three get into a fight in the street. This is when the men drive up and say they can’t be fighting in the street.
The movie makes it seem like the three of them are closer friends, and after the car thing, rather than get in a fight Jimmy suggests they write their names in fresh cement. After Dave gets in the car, one of the men turn around to look at him and we see he is wearing a ring from showing he is a priest in the Catholic church. This wasn’t in the book, and honestly, I think it was unnecessary.
Both the book and movie talk about how there was trash on the floor of the back seat. Later, Dave thinks how that was the first warning sign. He noticed the trash at the time, but it was later that he realized he’d had the feeling that something wasn’t right. Looking back, it was the trash that should have tipped him off that these men weren’t real cops.
In the book, when they are questioning Dave and telling him to get in the car, he starts to cry. Sean and Jimmy feel uncomfortable, and just stare at the ground. Then when Dave returns to school, kids are bullying him and saying terrible things about his time being kidnapped. There were a number of times in the book where it made me want to cry, and the scene where Dave is getting bullied at school was one of these times. Are kids really this cruel?? It made me want to reach out to young Dave and comfort him and help him find a therapist or someone, so that he would have a way to deal with what happened. His mom though, as I said was mentally ill, plus they were poor.
Speaking of kids being cruel, maybe this is foreshadowing in a way since it ends up being two kids that kill Katie. The book and movie say they shot her on accident, and then chased her because they didn’t want her to tell on them. This surprised me, because I thought we would learn that it was premeditated because Silent Ray didn’t want his brother leaving him to marry Katie. Maybe that was some of his motivation, but they don’t claim it as the main motivation.
Anyway, back to their childhood. Another change, in the movie when Dave is returned Sean and Jimmy are outside his apartment and see him arrive. That’s it really, the cops are there, and Dave and his mom go inside, and Dave looks out at Jimmy and Sean from the window.
In the book, when Dave is returned the town has a celebration. Initially, Dave is getting a lot of attention, so much so that Jimmy almost wants to tell his mom, hey I almost got in that car too! The whole town is out, someone starts playing music, vendors start giving out hot dogs, they have sprinklers on for kids to run through and it’s a full on block party. Dave and his mom though don’t stay for the party and go inside, where Jimmy sees him looking out his window. Sean isn’t there, because this is happening in the Flats, and Sean is up in the Point.
I think the easiest way to break down the rest of the story, is to split it in to three parts, one each for the three main characters.
In the book, when we see adult Sean, we find he is returning to work after having been on a suspension. We also learn that his wife left him a year ago. She had been having an affair, then got pregnant and Sean isn’t even sure if it’s his baby. He knows that he has become more withdrawn as the years have gone on, and his wife was a lively person and missed that connection with him. Being a detective has made him feel bitter about life, seeing the terrible things people do with very little motive. In the movie, they say his wife has been gone for six months, and no talk of a suspension is mentioned.
In both, we hear about his wife who will still call him, but never says anything. He will talk a bit, then eventually she just hangs up. In the book it is from Sean’s perspective, and when he tells someone about this, they are like if she doesn’t talk, how do you know it’s her? And he says he just knows. Because we aren’t told it is without a doubt her, I kept thinking these silent phone calls would end up contributing to the main plot in some way. Like turns out the person calling isn’t his wife, but instead is, I don’t know, Dave, or just someone who has to do with the plot.
When Sean arrests the killers, he is almost killed. Having that experience leads him to call his wife and tell her he is sorry. She finally speaks, saying she is sorry too and tells her the name of their daughter and she agrees to come home. When this happens in the book, I was kind of bummed it really had just been her all along.
The book has a bit more with Sean’s dad, and during the investigation he goes to see his parents and talks to his dad about the event with Dave. He tells his dad his suspicions about Dave being the killer, but the dad doesn’t think Dave would do a thing like that.
Jimmy and Annabeth
Adult Jimmy is introduced when he gets the call telling him that Katie never showed, and the guy needs help at the store. We learn in flashbacks about Jimmy’s criminal past, running a gang with the Savage brothers. When he is released from jail, he ends up dating and marrying the Savage sister, Annabeth. The movie does a good job revealing all these things about his past through his dialogue, not through actual flashbacks.
We are shown that he doesn’t like Brendan or Ray Harris but claims it’s because he knew the dad and hadn’t liked him. Everyone can tell there is something more though. Katie doesn’t tell her dad she is dating Brenden, because he had told her in the past that she could never bring a Harris home. In the book, it talks about who Katie was dating before Brendan. A guy named Bobby O’Donnell, who is an up and coming leader of a crew. He has a friend named Roman who sees Katie at the bar the night she was killed. He threatens her, saying Bobby wouldn’t want her out here, being drunk and embarrassing herself and that she should go home. The whole Bobby storyline is left out of the movie, which is fine by me because he doesn’t contribute much to the story.
When Jimmy is outside Pen Park because he sees it’s Katie’s car, he calls Annabeth and tells her. She says why haven’t you gone in yourself to find her and he says they aren’t letting him. She tells him that he needs to find a way in. After he hangs up, he is disappointed in himself for just hanging out outside for 45 minutes when he should have gone in there to find Katie. This is when, as the movie shows, he uses the bolt cutters to get in.
Speaking of Annabeth, above is a good example of who she was yet these specifics are left out of the movie. In the end, the book and movie have the scene where Jimmy confesses everything, and Annabeth is close to him and says that they’re strong and everyone else is weak. And that he is the kind of man that does whatever it takes to keep those he loves safe. The movie kind of has this come out of nowhere in my opinion. Whereas the book fleshed out her character more and it made sense. There are a number of times she is described as being straight forward, and a hard, strong woman. There is line she says while talking to Sean that reads,
“…life isn’t happily ever after and golden sunset and [crap] like that. It’s work. The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves the burden of it, either. You’ll let them down. You’ll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of really sucky days. You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him. But [hell], you roll up your sleeves and work-at everything-because that’s what growing older is.”
I think that’s a good example of the kind of woman she was. She was familiar with the harsh realities of life, but rather than those tough things making her weaker, they made her stronger, in a way. It also made her colder in some ways. Whereas people like Celeste, when things got tough, rather than getting tough with it, she wilted and became weaker.
At the end of the book, it is a week later, and the parade is going on. Jimmy is upstairs, and he is thinking about everything. He has a ‘conversation’ with Dave in his head, admitting that Dave didn’t have anything to do with Katie. But he convinces himself that Dave was going to end up hurting someone sooner or later. He had killed a guy, and Jimmy says it was only a matter of time before he would do something to a child. He then decides to kind of embrace this darker side of himself and is going to run a crew again and be the ‘leader’ of this town again. Up until this, I had liked Jimmy, but killing an innocent man sends him down a bad path and the things he says/thinks about Dave are just so harsh.
Then we have Sean, who is thinking about Dave in a kinder light. He had told Dave the two of them should grab a drink sometime, but then Sean never followed up on it. He now regrets it and wishes he would have been a better friend to Dave.
One random thing about Jimmy in the movie, there’s like two times he wears sunglasses, and he wears old man sunglasses. What’s up with that?? Trying to look like a senior citizen or something?
Dave and Celeste
Celeste is the only wife who we see into. Sunday morning, she is sitting in the bathroom, wondering how her life has gotten to his point. Feeling like she is stuck in a dead-end life basically. Then Dave comes in and is covered in blood. While he showers, she takes his clothes and rinses them in the sink and later bleaches the drainpipe to get rid of evidence. She doesn’t believe Dave’s story, but the whole thing makes he feel more awake and alive than she has in a long time. She put Dave’s clothes in a bag and says she will put it in the trash on Tuesday when the garbage truck comes.
When she hears about Katie, she goes to Annabeth’s house (who is her cousin). During one of these time at Jimmy’s house, Annabeth is upstairs and hears outside the cops talking to Dave. When he walks off, she hears the cops talking about how they suspect Dave. They then talk about how someone noticed a guy sitting out in the parking lot of the bar Katie was last in, and the car fits the description of Dave’s. This is shown in the movie, but they leave out the storyline of Dave’s car being seen.
There is also blood found in the parking lot of the bar and is taped off to investigate. As the reader, when we hear this is makes it seem like perhaps Dave wasn’t involved in Katies death after all. Another thing that holds Sean up from pinning it on Dave, is that there were no footprints found in the park where Katies body was. They saw some of her prints, but no others. And Dave is a big enough guy that he would have left footprints in the mud.
In the movie, they also say in the end that a body was found in the woods near the bar. In the book though, Dave first puts the body in his trunk. Then decides to put the body in the guy’s own trunk and locks the car. The car is eventually towed, then when it goes unclaimed and starts to smell, the cops are called.
The movie does show Dave losing touch with reality and talks about The Boy who has been showing his face too much lately. In the book the passage reads,
“The biggest problem right now was that the Boy Who’d Escaped from Wolves and Grown Up was showing his face too much. Dave had hoped that what he’sd done Saturday night would settle that, shut the [Boy] up, send him back deep into the forest of Dave’s mind. He’d wanted blood that night, the Boy, he’d wanted to cause some…pain. So, Dave had obliged. At first it had just been minor, a few punches, a kick. But then it had gotten out of control, Dave feeling the rage welling up inside of him as the Boy took over. The Boy was one mean customer.”
There is the whole vampire/werewolf talk in both book and movie, but overall, Dave seemed more off, and scary in the book.
When Celeste comes home and sees him watching the vampire movie, he seems fine and they are even joking, then he gets serious. Celeste says she hasn’t been herself lately and then Dave says no one is themselves,
“’Like this movie?’ he said. ‘They don’t know who the real people are and who the vampires are. I’ve seen parts of this before, right, and that Baldwin brother there? He’s going to fall in love with that blond girl, even though he knows she’s been bitten. So, she’s going to turn into a vampire, but he don’t care, right? Because he loves her. Yet she’s a bloodsucker. She’s going to suck his blood and turn him into the walking dead. I mean, that’s the whole thing about vampirism, Celeste—there’s something attractive about it. Even if you know it’ll kill you and damn your soul for an eternity and you’ll have to spend all your time biting people in the neck, and hiding out from the sun and, you know, Vatican hit squads. Maybe one day you wake up and forget what it was to be human. Maybe that happens, and then it’s okay. You’ve been poisoned, but the poison ain’t all that bad once you learn how to live with it.” He propped his feet up on the coffee table, took a long drink from the can. “That’s my opinion anyway.’”
In the movie, he seems to then start crying, and then talks about “Henry and George”. Whereas in the book, he starts laughing this weird, out of control laugh. In the book, when he’s a boy it talks about how the way he dealt with his kidnapping was to think of them as Wolves, and not use their names. There were times though when the names would blare in his head, tormenting him. Later, when he starts using their names with Celeste, we get how over the edge he is.
We get to Celeste’s perspective, and she has never been more scared and is realizing she has no idea who this man is she married. They had been together like ten years, and when she had asked him about the kidnapping, he would just talk about getting in the car, and that he then was able to escape. So, this is the first she’s ever really hearing about it. Dave leaves to go to a bar, and on his way out he turns around and says, oh by the way, I got rid of my clothes.
Celeste in panicking and gets Michael and takes a taxi to a motel.
The next day Dave is taken into questioning as the movie shows. The movie does a good job showing how Dave outsmarts them with the whole car theft thing. In the book Dave is thinking how confident he feels, but the longer he’s in there, he realized he only felt that way because he was still drunk from the night before. He starts to feel sick and desperate and thinks how if they came back in here now, he would end up spilling everything to them. They don’t come back in though, and instead release him. He goes home and has a few beers, his unnerving confidence coming back to him. He is mildly worried about where Celeste and Michael went, but he has decided he will make things right with her. But for now, he needs more beer. So, he heads out to go to a bar, when Val Savage comes up and asks if he wants to get a drink and Dave happily says yes. In the book it is just Val, and Dave gets in the passenger side. In the movie, there is a second guy, so Dave gets in the back seat and it is very reminiscent to when he got in the car as kid. Both car rides leading to his death, in one way or another.
Meanwhile, Celeste doesn’t know what to do. If she still had the clothes’, she would turn them into the police, but since she doesn’t, she doesn’t know what to do. This passage in the book helps us understand why she goes to Jimmy. “Without the clothes Dave had worn home that night, it didn’t make much sense to go to the police. She told herself this. She told herself this because she wasn’t sure the police could protect her. She had to live in this neighborhood, after all, and the only thing that could protect you from something dangerous in the neighborhood was the neighborhood itself. And if she told Jimmy, then not only he, but the Savages as well, could form a kind of moat around her that Dave would never dare cross.”
Since she is scared, and wanting protection from Dave, that makes it seem like she didn’t think Jimmy would kill Dave. She wasn’t thinking logically though, she was panicky and stressed and was thinking emotionally. I think her character in the movie got too much hate. She was in a tough situation! Dave wasn’t making himself seem innocent with the way he was talking and saying he didn’t have control over himself. Should she just have gone to the police anyway? Yeah, that would have been the logical way to go. But logic wasn’t really being used here.
In the book, at the end during the parade Celeste is there and goes up to Sean, pointing to Jimmy saying he killed Dave. Sean says he knows, and that he is going to get him for it. This exchange is left out of the movie. The movie does a great job with the scene where her son comes by on the float and she is calling out to him to get his attention, but he is glum and looking down. Celeste is clearly losing it, and Harden does give such a heartbreaking performance in this scene.
The events with Savages and then Jimmy joining them at the bar are pretty much the same in both the book and movie. The bar is along the Mystic River, the back area of it not visible from anywhere.
When Jimmy asks Dave about the blood, in both book and movie, Dave tells him the truth, but Jimmy doesn’t buy it. The only difference is in the movie Dave says that he killed the man because he was scared of becoming that same kind of person. In the book, he thinks this, but it’s one of those things he is too ashamed of to ever admit out loud.
The movie has this confession of who it was he actually killed, come out of nowhere really. Like there wasn’t anything in the story thus far that lead us to know about another death taking place the night Katie was killed. In the book there is a scene where Val goes to Jimmy about how they have talked to everyone around about Katie, doing their detective work. He tells him about a girl he knows that hooks outside the bar and she tells him about the 12 year old boy that also works outside the bar. The kid would sometimes crash at her place, but she said she hadn’t seen him, and something must have really scared him off to make him run away. Then there is the talk of blood in the parking lot, and it’s revealed that Dave put a body in the trunk and that whole thing. In the movie they say the blood in the trunk was the same as Katies, but in the book Sean finds that it’s not her blood type. However, we are left guessing what really happened up until the very end. Whereas the movie, leaves out all these breadcrumbs that clue us in to what was going on with Dave in regards to the man he killed.
It says that before he killed Just Ray, Just Ray had told Jimmy that you can’t outrun a moving train. Jimmy says he still doesn’t know what Ray meant by that. The book talks about how Jimmy will have dreams about Just Ray, and now, a week after killing Dave, he is thinking about him now too. Robbery is one thing, but murder is something you can’t run from and it will haunt Jimmy now. Hence, you can’t outrun a moving train.
Book or Movie
The directing, the acting, the cinematography, really everything about the movie is top tier. As much as people like the movie on its own, I would recommend reading the book and it will make you like the movie more because you will be aware of the details the movie leaves out. In Lehane’s The Drop book vs movie, I said the book had more details, but the details weren’t that pertinent to the story really, so skipping the book would be fine. Here though, getting all those details makes such a difference! Even though I have covered a lot of the bigger details here, there is still plenty more! Again, it’s not a book I would recommend to just anyone, but if you liked the movie, you will for sure love the book. Which is why, if I had to pick one or the other, as great as the movie is, I would definitely pick the book.
Since this is the third Lehane book I have now covered, I thought I would rank them! Even though this book/movie combo is probably Lehane’s most well known, and the movie was critically acclaimed, I actually think I would name Shutter Island as my favorite of the three (check out Shutter Island book vs movie!) The movie seemed to have gone under the radar, and both book and movie are so well done! Mystic would for sure come in second though, with The Drop being third. Lehane also wrote Gone, Baby Gone which I plan to cover at some point. But for now, I will give Lehane a rest and move on to other authors.