Mystic River Ending Explained & Plot Analysis

Mystic River (2003): unravel the plot of the bloody drama from director Clint Eastwood: plot summary, ending explanation, description, movie meaning, similar movies.

Country: USA, Australia

Genre: drama, detective

Year of production: 2003

Director: Clint Eastwood

Actors: Tim Robbins, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon, Laurence Fishburne, Tom Geary.

Slogan: “In getting rid of our sins, we wash them away”.

Awards: César 2004 for Best Foreign Language Film, Golden Mentor Award for director Clint Eastwood at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, Oscar 2004 and Golden Globe 2004 for Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Supporting Actor.

The plot of Mystic River, based on the novel of the same name by crime drama master Dennis Lehane, is impeccably constructed and presented. However, after the first viewing there could be some questions concerning some shown events and logic in the actions of characters. Let’s analyze the content of the picture and the meaning that the creators put into it.

What the movie is about

So, let’s make a breakdown of the plot of the movie Mystic River.

The picture begins with a description of the events of the summer of 1975 in East Boston. Three boys – Dave, Sean and Jimmy – play on the road. Once again a baseball hits a ditch and the boys have to find something else to do. They write their names on the unconsolidated concrete. Dave doesn’t have time to write his completely. A car pulls up to the company with people posing as police officers. They take Dave away, ostensibly to confront his mother about defacing municipal property. It turns out the men were rapists. They abuse the boy for several days until he escapes. One of the kidnappers soon dies, the other commits suicide in a prison cell.

Sean Penn of Mystic River
Sean Penn played the role of Jimmy Markum. A still from the movie Mystic River

Next we watch the same trio twenty-five years later.

Jimmy owns a grocery store. As a young man, he served a prison sentence for robbery, but seems to have come to his senses. He has a nineteen-year-old daughter Katy from his first marriage and two young daughters from his current wife Annabeth.

Dave is a regular working man. He has a wife Celeste and a young son Michael.

Sean is a policeman, he is married, but his wife left him. Every once in a while, she gives him a call. But it’s a one-way communication. Only Sean speaks. One day she is due to give birth to a child.

In the evening Dave goes to a bar and sees Jimmy’s daughter there, having fun in his company. At night, a man comes home covered in blood, which scares Celeste. He claims that he was attacked and wanted to rob and seems to have killed the intruder. Dave flatly refuses to go to the hospital and report the incident to the police.

In the morning, the police receive a call from some boys who found a car with traces of blood. When the dispatcher tries to get their names, the boys get scared and hang up. Sean and his partner Whitey arrive on the scene.

Katy goes missing. Jimmy thinks his daughter is out for a walk, but has to show up at church for her little sister’s communion. As usual, he’s working at the store. When a guy named Brandon Harris shows up there with his deaf younger brother, Jimmy’s face contorts. His subordinate is perplexed as to why the boss dislikes the Harris family so much.

From a tech sheet found in the car, Sean realizes that the body discovered belongs to Jimmy’s daughter. Detectives reconstruct the picture of what happened: the girl apparently hit the criminal with the door, the shot hit her, and she ran away in the direction of the park. Katy’s body is found in a pit nearby. Here the killer caught up with the girl and shot her again.

Tim Robbins of Mystic River
Tim Robbins played the role of Dave Boyle and Marcia Gay Harden starred as Celeste Boyle. A still from the movie Mystic River

Leaving the church after communion, Jimmy notices police cars and a crowd of gawkers. When he arrives at the scene of the tragedy, he is horrified to discover that his daughter is dead.

Celeste finds no reports in the latest newspapers about the murder of a man near the bar and begins to suspect her husband of lying. The news reports about Katy’s body found in the park – suspicions are heightened.

After the identification, Sean and his partner ask grief-stricken Jimmy and Annabeth to remember any details about the last days of their daughter’s life. But it’s as if Jimmy doesn’t hear. He asks Sean if he has thought about what would have happened if someone else, then in 1975, had gotten into the kidnappers’ car. If it had been Jimmy, he would have lost his mind, his life would have turned out differently, Katty wouldn’t have been born and he wouldn’t have died.

Sean and Whitey are interviewing the witness. She heard the victim’s car hit the curb. Then a woman’s voice said, “Hello,” and there was a loud pop or gunshot. From these words, police conclude that the girl knew her attacker. Katy’s friends admit that she was going to run away with Brandon Harris (she met with him secretly from her father) in Las Vegas.

Talking to the cops, Brandon confirms the details of the elopement plan: the couple planned to get married in Las Vegas. The guy sobs and says he loved the girl. He was at home at the time of the murder, but he has no reliable evidence of this. The cops realize that the guy probably didn’t have the sense to kill the girl either.

Dave is clearly not himself after the night he was allegedly attacked by the burglar. He is haunted by memories from his childhood when he was kidnapped. He tells his wife that when he came out of the basement then, he was no longer Dave. Celeste grows increasingly worried.

Kevin Bacon of Mystic River
The role of Sean Devine was played by Kevin Bacon. A still from the movie Mystic River

The police check the list of people in the bar that night and find out that Dave was among them. They talk to him and he tells them that he saw the girl with her friends. Katy left about fifteen minutes before him. Dave keeps quiet about the incident with the robber. Whitey begins to suspect him. According to him, people who have experienced violence are often capable of doing something bad. And indeed there are too many grounds for suspicion: Dave was at the bar in the evening, he has a wounded arm, about the cause of the injury he lies to everyone. And Katy knew Dave as well as her killer.

Jimmy promises his dead daughter to find the villain before the police and punish him. The cops meet him again. They ask him why he doesn’t like the Harrises. He replies that he knew the father of the family named Ray. He left his pregnant wife. As they say, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. So the son probably looks just like his father.

Ballistics report comes back. The shot was fired from a revolver stolen in 1982. It was later used in a liquor store robbery. The owner of the latter is convinced that the robbers had an accomplice among the employees and it was Ray Harris. A colleague, who was in charge of Harris’ case, informs the police: Ray was released in exchange for information on Jimmy’s case. Harris made a deal with the investigation and went to prison for two years. He disappeared shortly after Jimmy was released.

The police search Dave’s car and find bloodstains in the interior and trunk. Shawn reminds his partner that Katty wasn’t put in the trunk. Whitey calls Dave in for questioning. He replies that the car was stolen and he doesn’t know what the car thieves did with it (Whitey purposely declared the car stolen to get grounds for an inspection, but it played a cruel joke). We have to let him go.

Laurence Fishburne of Mystic River
Starring Laurence Fishburne as Whitey Powers. A still from the movie Mystic River

Jimmy’s old sidekicks the Savage brothers inform him that the police have been questioning Dave. The grieving father visits his former friend. On Dave’s doorstep, Celeste tells Jimmy about the events of the ill-fated night and her suspicions about her husband.

The policeman talks to Brandon about his father. He doesn’t remember much. He is sure that Ray is alive, because every month he receives five hundred dollars from him. When asked about his father’s revolver, Brandon says he knows nothing.

After listening to the tape of the abandoned car report, Sean suddenly realizes that the teenage callers knew: a girl was hurt. The car was found empty, though.

Brandon, after questioning, searches for his father’s revolver, which he had actually kept in a hiding place, and doesn’t find it there. He is horrified when he gets a clue to the crime he committed: his deaf-mute younger brother (his name, like his father, is Ray) was so afraid of being alone that he killed Katy. When he returns home with a friend, Brandon uses a revolver (already found in his brother’s possession) to beat a confession out of them. The police burst into the house and arrest the teens.

The Savage brothers invite Dave for a drink at a secluded riverside bar. After a while, Jimmy arrives there. Dave gets sick from drinking and runs outside. Jimmy and the Savage brothers follow him. He tells Dave about Ray Harris, thanks to whom he went to jail. It was at this very spot that Jimmy shot his accomplice and threw him in the river. Now he has to do the same thing – this time with Dave.

bar crawl of Mystic River
A frame from the movie Mystic River

Dave realizes what Jimmy suspects him of, and this time he gives a truthful explanation of what happened to him that unfortunate night. It turns out that he saw a man molesting a boy in his car. Throwing himself at the pervert, Dave smashed his head on the sidewalk, then hid the body in the trunk and dumped it in the woods behind the bar. Jimmy can’t remember any recent reports of a male corpse being found and so doesn’t believe what he’s told. He pressures Dave to confess in exchange for his life. He says he killed Katy and even gives the reason: the girl reminded him of his youth, which could have been, but was not because of his childhood experiences.

In the morning, Sean informs Jimmy that the real killers have been found – it’s Ray Jr. and his friend. The teenagers took a revolver. One of them lay on the sidewalk. They wanted to scare Katy, but the revolver accidentally went off. Scared that the girl would give them away, the teens chased her down and fired another shot.

Sean also informs Jimmy that they found the body of a man twice convicted of child molestation in the woods behind the bar. The man realizes that his former friend was telling the truth before he died and he killed him for nothing. Shawn asks when Jimmy last saw Dave. Toth replies that it was twenty-five years ago when the boy was kidnapped. Shawn guesses what happened and questions: “Are you going to send Celeste five hundred dollars each now, too?”. Jimmy doesn’t answer. He looks in front of him and says that sometimes it seems to him as if all three of them were in the car then, and what is happening now is just a dream. In reality, they are eleven-year-old boys, sitting in the basement and imagining how they would live if they were saved.

Jimmy confesses to his wife what he has done. She comforts her husband, saying that he has a very big and kind heart, and for the sake of his family he will do anything – and it is right.

In the finale, we watch the town celebration. Everyone has gathered to watch the grand parade. There is Jimmy and his family, and Sean, reunited with his wife, who gave birth to his daughter. Celeste walks down the street in confusion. Sean looks at Jimmy and gestures that nothing is over – the criminal will answer for what he has done. The man spreads his hands as if to say, “Who knows?”

At the end of Mystic River, we see the procession moving down the main street past the concrete slab that bears the names of the three friends: Jimmy, Sean, and Dave’s half-written name.

Explanation of the ending of the movie Mystic River

So, from the events at the end of Mystic River we learn the following:

  • Jimmy kills his accomplice Ray Harris for revenge.
  • Ironically, Jimmy’s daughter Katy was shot and killed by Ray’s youngest son with a revolver belonging to the deceased.
  • Katy’s murder was due to the brotherly love of Ray’s youngest son for Brandon, who in turn was in love with Katy.

Dave turned out to be innocent of the girl’s death, although he committed another crime by killing a pedophile and hiding his body. Jimmy killed his former friend based on the suspicions of Celeste, whom he met through him (Celeste is Annabeth’s cousin), as well as on the wrong direction of Sean’s investigation into Katy’s death. Dave, before his death, confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, probably not wanting to relive the mental trauma of his childhood over and over again.

Thus we see the fates of the characters intertwined, one event entailing another. The Mystic River (a specific river in East Boston and a metaphor for the flow of life) carries away the bodies of the dead. It seems to wash away the sins of their murderers, but in fact the past never disappears, inevitably catching up with the living. In this sense, Jimmy is right in saying that they are still eleven-year-old children imagining a happy future.

In giving an explanation of the ending, it’s worth touching on Jimmy and Annabeth’s relationship – it’s given quite a bit of attention in the final episodes. The wife of a gangster (despite a relatively peaceful life, Jimmy remained one) gained a lot of power over him.

Laura Linney of Mystic River
Laura Linney as Annabeth. A still from the movie Mystic River

Now Katy, the daughter from her first marriage, does not stand between her and her spouse. Jimmy seems to have loved her the most. Annabeth is essentially saying what her husband wants to hear – she is transforming guilt into a sense of power and impunity. In fact, this transformation is one that Jimmy has successfully engaged in his entire life. The guilt he has felt since the teenage Dave was kidnapped has probably been displaced and turned to aggression. The latter became systematic and legitimately turned to criminal activity.

The city parade and the “autographs” of the main characters on the concrete serve as vivid images that complement the meaning of the ending of Mystic River. The parade is like a river of people. In the center of it we see a huge baseball, which symbolizes a whole lump of sins (small, fallen in the ditch, balls).

Another confirmation: contrary to the ironic slogan of the movie, they cannot be washed away. Moreover, each sin has its own “author” who inevitably leaves an “autograph”. And if Jimmy and Sean are fully responsible for their actions, Dave’s actions are largely due to trauma. After a nightmare in his childhood, it’s as if he died and became a vampire with an erased past (remember the dialog with Celeste in the middle of the picture). Dave’s name, written only halfway through, serves as an image of his broken fate, of a life not truly lived.

The meaning of the movie Mystic River

The movie is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. The content of the latter has been transferred to the screen quite carefully – in general, the production corresponds to the original, only some plot lines have been shortened.

Mystic River makes you think about many things: about the intertwining of human destinies, about the influence of guilt and trauma on life, about responsibility for one’s actions, about the fatal power of love, about the choices made every day. From the plot can be emphasized a lot of ideas, interpretations. At the same time, one should hardly look for any special hidden meaning in it. The beauty of the picture is in its thoughtfulness and realism. The essence of the movie is clearly not to convey some kind of instruction – the moral not to do evil and to think about the consequences of one’s actions would be too superficial. Rather, it is simply the truth of life as seen by the author of the book and the director of the movie version.

friends on the stairs of Mystic River
A still from the movie Mystic River (2003)

Similar movies

  • Prisoners (USA, 2013): a grieving father takes on the investigation of his daughter’s kidnapping;
  • Gone Baby Gone (USA, 2007): another gripping crime drama about the investigation of a child kidnapping;
  • The Hunt (Denmark, Sweden, 2012): a man becomes an outcast due to false accusations of molesting a minor;
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (UK, USA, 2017): a desperate woman pressures city officials to find her daughter’s killer;
  • The Place Beyond the Pines (USA, 2012): a crime drama about the intertwining of human destinies.
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