Three childhood friends, now adult neighbors who have drifted apart, are brought together through the brutal murder of Jimmy's 19-year-old daughter. Sean Penn plays the grieving father; Kevin Bacon plays Sean, the plainclothes cop on the case; and Tim Robbins is Dave, a man deeply troubled following his childhood abduction and sexual abuse by two strange men. It's an important part of this film that the action takes place in a tough white working-class neighborhood north of Boston in a culture that seems to have no place for emotional problems like Dave's.

This leaves Dave alone with his agonies, feeling alienated from himself and living a kind of Jekyll-and-Hyde existence driven by a love-hate relationship with pederasty. One night he kills a child abuser, and then tells contradictory stories to explain the bloodstains he returns home with. Through a tragic misunderstanding, these things are connected with the death of Jimmy's daughter, and Jimmy turns violent and takes justice into his own hands. Shortly after, Sean finds the true killers, who confess.


Mystic River is a crime investigation film woven together with a psychological case history. Dave's emotional troubles both complicate and distort the film's distribution of justice. If he had not been sexually abused as a child, he would not have become a suspect and would not have been murdered. The film's basic plot of crime leading to further crimes gives it the feel of classic tragedy. However, the film's conclusion is ambiguous about the final settling of destinies.

The next-to-final sequence is a neighborhood Fourth of July parade in which we see Dave's wife (Marcia Gay Harden), who does not yet know (though she probably suspects) what has happened to her husband, in a state of panic. Yet the characters who know the terrible thing that has happened (Jimmy and Sean and Jimmy's wife) act out a conventionally placid surface.

And the film ends with a lengthy shot of the lightly rippled surface of the Mystic River. Does that, like the happy conventionality of the neighborhood parade, suggest that the film's painful events will remain buried below the social surface? Is Jimmy's revenge an act that the neighborhood's culture condones enough to permit it to remain unprosecuted? What part does stigmatization of Dave's emotional problems play in his murder and its possible cover-up? This film makes a provocative contribution to the literature on mental illness in its cultural contexts.


Oscars for Penn (leading actor) and Robbins (supporting actor); many nominations and other awards. Based on a novel by Dennis Lehane.

Primary Source

Warner Home Video