MAX: Is this your way of getting revenge?
NOODLES: No. It’s just the way I see things…
– dialogue from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984)
You people put importance on your lives. Well, my life has never been important to anyone. I haven’t got any guilt about anything; These children that come at you with knives, they’re your children. You taught them. I didn’t teach them. They are running in the streets — and they are coming right at you!
– Charlie Manson (1)
In the history of cinema, only Chaplin had the same problem, to be both a universally recognised icon, owned by the public, and a mere man and artist, a director with things to say. They always want the tramp. To mess with an archetype is dangerous and unrewarding work. Monsieur Verdoux (1947) A King in New York (1957) and Limelight (1952). The titles range like headstones in a graveyard. Chaplin outraged the public through his pacifism, his lechery, and his class-consciousness, but even more by simply daring to move on.
There is a boycott on for Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003). Didn’t you know? On right wing blogs, The O’Reilly Factor, and among the Confederate Flag Pick-up Truck people, Clint is in big trouble. Seems he hired the two biggest traitors since Benedict Arnold, Tim Robbins and “Hanoi Sean” Penn, and put them in a movie. Gave ’em a buncha lines, too. But obviously the boycott has made little headway, as the film seems to have nervously connected with both audiences and critics. But the casting is Clint’s canniest move in a long career of dangerous moves.
Clint Eastwood, The Man with no Name, the second most famous elected Republican in Kah-li-fornia, professed Anarchist Libertarian, business tycoon, Nixon supporter, lawsuit magnet, and ex-mayor of Carmel by the Sea, Mr Go-Ahead-Make-My-Day can’t help but infuriate people. He seems to like it. You know a man best through the vintage of his enemies, and Pauline Kael hated him good and early on. She saw Clint as an aging pretty-boy, a gifted entertainer with overblown artistic pretensions. If she were still around, hating on principle, certainly she could muster a mighty wind to roil the river of accolades for the deeply misanthropic Mystic River.
But Pauline Kael lies a-mouldering in the grave, and Clint, the original vitamin vampire, is triumphant. How fair is that?
But Clint never played fair. That was the whole point. John Wayne was righteous and rectified when he used force. There was nothing to wash Clint clean. He was dirty and he stayed dirty. That seems to be the point of the normally excellent Jonathan Rosenbaum’s somewhat baffled recent review of Mystic River. Let’s nominate it for most intellectually dishonest review of the century. (I know it’s only 2003, but I remain confident.)
His premise is that Mystic River cynically (or unconsciously) plays to America’s post 9-11 blood lust, and therefore is aiding and abetting state terrorism. After playing metacritic for a few paragraphs, plinking at the many poor scribes that were simplistically overheated by Mystic River‘s manifest virtues, (so much so that they began to breathlessly hazard comparisons to Sophocles and many other dead white males) the angry Mr. Rosenbaum gets specific. And I quote:
Since I have doubts about the ideological and psychosexual program of Mystic River — especially the part implying that the thirst for revenge is an honorable adult emotion — I should stress that Eastwood’s artistry is equally relevant to my argument. The success of Mystic River as melodrama and art is precisely what I mistrust about it, because that success comes with dubious baggage in tow — baggage that is less obviously dubious than the Nazi propaganda served by Leni Riefenstahl’s artistry in Triumph of the Will (1935) but still consequential (2).
I had to read that last paragraph a couple of times. In Pushkin’s day, words this saucy would have certainly required a duel. I had the following responses, in a chain: 1) Every time I hear the word “program” I reach for my revolver. 2) Is this movie about the exaltation of revenge?? 3) Uh-oh, melodrama. 4) Did the man just pimpslap Mystic River against Triumph of the Will?
For sure, Rosenbaum has definitely struck a new vein in the mine of Clintography – Clint as “Evil Genius”. Rosenbaum sees Clint as some kind of master, inarguably a genius (of melodrama), but ethically compromised. So he cannot join the stampeding herd in calling it A-R-T. I for one, worry about the ultimate “artistic” value of Triumph of the Will. Fritz Lang wasn’t available. Leni hustled. But does it tell you anything about Nazis you didn’t already know? It’s an infomercial, a gig. Sure, it’s a milestone in the coverage of media events. If Triumph of the Will is art, then so are the Grammys. And frankly, if the Grammys are art, I feel pretty comfortable in calling Mystic River a work of art.
I have to assume that reviewers who get this worked up about how much a work of art is a work of art — and [critic David] Denby is far from the only one — want to buttress some ideological and psychosexual program they fear won’t be taken seriously enough without the label of “art” (3).
I think that ultimately critics have little to do with whether something is “art”. I think in America, calling something Art means it’s going to hurt a little. It’s a protective euphemism. I, like Rosenbaum, also find funny (but not shocking) these attempts to rehab Clint as a chastened statesman, the Albert Speer, let’s say, of American Violence. The headlines scream: “CLINT EXORCISES HIS FASCIST PAST!!” But this is nonsense, really. Eastwood’s view of human nature hasn’t fundamentally changed in the course of his twenty-four films. He’s just grown sublime at dramatising it. Like Robinson Jeffers, that other famous denizen of the crags of Carmel, Clint could be called an Inhumanist.
To begin to speak of any film of Clint Eastwood without confusion, it is necessary to address the barnacled Clint persona separately. In the case of Mystic River, it is easier. He has neglected to cast himself in the picture. His iconic physical presence has been replaced with a musical one. This removal of a problematic and complex persona has also removed a fundamental critical objection to seeing his latest as “art”. This, I propose, rather than some atavistic conspiracy to celebrate the kicking of ass, may account for the relatively unambivalent reception of Mystic River.
Let me first gather lancet and scalpel and perform a brief but hygienic Clintectomy.
To return to the primal scene of Clint Studies: Pauline Kael’s dumbass review of Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry. Rosenbaum is recklessly building upon this well-spaded but sterile ground. What bothered her about Dirty Harry back in 1971 is that he seemed to represent unbridled police power: judge, jury, and executioner. Harry didn’t care about people’s rights, i.e. the social context of the crime, and furthermore he was uneasy if not contemptuous (Siegel himself referred to Harry as a “bitter bigot”) of the debris of the progressive ’60s (hippies, queers, blacks, Chicanos, and women). Dirty Harry just tied people into knots. It was a massive provocation. By proposing that the feminised, sensitive, police bureaucracy was carrying on the progressive goals of LBJ’s Great Society, it forced the hipsters to choose between the establishment that they reflexively hated and this cool redneck (and incidentally sadistic) gunslinger. Again, not fair.
I’ve never understood how the same old-school lefty Don Siegel who is justly celebrated as being so in on the (McCarthyite) joke back in 1956 (with Invasion of the Body Snatchers) is not in on the joke in 1971 with Dirty Harry. For me the trailer tagline says it all: “Dirty Harry and the homicidal maniac. Harry’s the one with the badge.” Get it? If you need to confirm all this, pick up Siegel’s memoir, A Siegel Film, one of the all-time brilliant, bullshit-free, and funny books on filmmaking and Hollywood. As it happens, the introduction is written by…who else? Clint Eastwood.
It is obvious now that Siegel and Eastwood relished the absurdity of the dramatic premise. With such a bloody morsel out there, somebody was bound to take the bait. Like any uptown film critic trying to be hip, Pauline Kael liked to say that this or that was “fascist”. Pretty strong words for a sardonic, politically incorrect version of High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) minus the clocks. The town is in thrall to a villain, and no one can find the guts to help the “sheriff” take him on. Whoa. Call out the Black Shirts! Today, the movie plays like satire, something that can’t be remotely claimed about Death Wish (Michael Winner, 1974) or Billy Jack (Tom Laughlin, 1971). I mention Dirty Harry in detail, because at its simplest level, Mystic River is almost a complete inversion of the themes of its infamous predecessor.
Eastwood’s persona carries a unique distinction among superstars; he represents almost exclusively morally ambiguous figures. He is a coyote/trickster figure among banal comic book heroes. No one has stretched more, or questioned the confines of the movie star construct. Imagine Ben Affleck, Gibson or Willis, or the action hero of your choice in any of these situations:
|Homoerotic Lover||Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)|
|Terrorised Male Gothic||Play Misty for Me (Clint Eastwood, 1971)|
|Sacrificial Erotic Murder Victim||The Beguiled (Don Siegel, 1971)|
|Secret Service Agent Failure||In the Line of Fire (Wolfgang Petersen, 1993)|
|Sexual Obsessive Cop||Tightrope (Richard Tuggle, 1984)|
|Deathly, Consumptive Country Legend||Honkytonk Man (Clint Eastwood, 1984)|
|Orangutan Co-Star:||Every Which Way but Loose (Hal Needham, 1978) and|
|Any Which Way You Can (Hal Needham, 1980)|
|Unredeemed Mercenary Killer||Unforgiven (Clint Eastwood, 1992)|
|Saccharine Circus Freak||Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood, 1980)|
|Fey, but Psychotic Director||White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood, 1990)|
|Loveless Commitment-Phobe||The Bridges of Madison County (Clint Eastwood, 1995)|
|Geriatric Washed-up Astronaut||Space Cowboys (Clint Eastwood, 2000)|
And you’ll notice that this is not a gallery of antiheroes (à la Robert de Niro) but heroes with realistic, even graphic burdens. A catalogue of wounded, neurotic masculinities almost without peer. But Clint has done this from the perch of consistent box office stardom. He sounds his audiences with an uncanny degree of precision. He is economic and clean, almost Bressonian, in self characterisation. There is none of the spastic indulgence that lets us know that we are in the presence of “great acting”. But he is always interesting and entertaining. For that reason, generally people miss how serious an actor he is. But fellow actors know and admire him. And presidents, too, a few of whom have appropriated his iconography for the purpose of scoring political points.
Can the Political Clint be separated from the Artistic Clint? Jonathan Rosenbaum thinks not. In the course of the review, Rosenbaum makes several ham-fisted connections between Mystic River and American Imperial Policy, a conceit, I’m sorry to say, that taxes the limits of metaphor. The implication here is that Mystic River is a hoo-ah of a picture that justifies a peculiar spirit of American vengeance that will be manipulated by the fascist American hegemons to justify the barbarities of the administration of Bush the Second. Let me weakly interject here that I found Mystic River equidistant from the private mythologies of Rambo and Noam Chomsky. But nothing will convince Rosenbaum that Mystic River is not actually about the Gulf Wars:
Jimmy promises to let Dave live if he’ll “tell the truth” and “admit” that he killed Katie, which forces Dave to lie. That Jimmy kills him anyway — not for lying but for supposedly telling the truth — isn’t allowed to interfere for a second with Jimmy’s status as tragic hero rather than pathetic, retarded monster. Dave, who committed a desperate, vengeful murder of his own around the time Katie was killed, seen as pathetic and retarded because of his childhood trauma, though his victim is viewed as another bit of collateral damage that needn’t concern us; there’s a tacit assumption that because he was a sexual molester, he probably deserved to die (4).
Even granting the dubious premise that Mystic River celebrates revenge violence and vigilantism, Rosenbaum’s outrage masks a bourgeois implication that cops are just tripping over themselves to solve the crimes of the afflicted urban (and marginally criminal) poor of South Boston. Rosenbaum makes nothing of the extraordinary situation that the body just happens to be found in State Police jurisdiction (as opposed to the local police) and the officer assigned to the case is the childhood friend of the young woman’s father. If this had landed in the hands of the local cops, it would be one of hundreds of cold, dead cases, as those students of criminology, the Savage Brothers (the hoodlums who function as Jimmy’s chorus of furies), remark. “For once,” says Val, “the fuckin’ cops are doing their jobs…” That Jimmy believes that if you want justice you have to make it, may not be the misguided belief of a “pathetic, retarded monster”; In his neck of the woods, it is no doubt the truth.
It is often the case, that these people who are repelled by the accurate depiction of lower class predatory violence in their backyards are generally the first to defend it if it comes in a suitable “Third World” anti-colonialist disguise. Vengeance is OK for Hamas and the Iraqis, but not for the local wretched of the earth. Rosenbaum does not indicate where he stands on this geopolitical conundrum. But I think we can hazard a guess.
Jimmy, whatever his failings, is allowed to stand tall. A desire for revenge — no matter how illogical, misguided, and ultimately disastrous its premises might be — is probably the most validated emotion in current American movies and current American politics. It’s seen as so noble and righteous that for some it justifies a loss of civil liberties, as well as capital punishment, holy wars, and collateral damage. Even if the wrong people die, at least we know our intentions were good (5).
Rosenbaum is wilfully tone-deaf here. Maybe his recent incarnation as a war correspondent has shredded his eardrums. I challenge anybody (professional film critics excepted, of course) to watch Mystic River and draw the conclusion that Jimmy is to be viewed as a noble and righteous tragic hero. What is evident here is Rosenbaum’s contempt for the audience. He’s protecting us from being taken in by something. Fine. But his take on Mystic River is unacceptable; it forces you to ignore too much of a movie that is quite dense with thematics. One has to feel that if The Searchers (John Ford, 1956) were in the 2003 Oscar contention, Rosenbaum would write an identical review.
There is an unpleasant habit in American film criticism (of whatever ideological persuasion), in the face of difficulties, to lapse into addled moralising. Call this tendency Frodonisme, after the immortal Jean-Michel Frodon, who is, if not the founder of this school, its arch-pupil. It’s a fine thing when critics are so attuned to their audiences that they are empowered to cathartically bear the cross of watching movies for them, drawing morals out of the amplifier of their fine sensibilities, until all that’s left is a feedback screech. But it is always suspect when a critic warns you that “enjoying” a film makes you complicit with its agenda. It’s the old Entartete Kunst soft-shoe, if you grant me another National Socialist metaphor.
I found the review perversely misrepresented the movie. Rosenbaum has astonishingly little of interest to say about it. He senses some vague misogyny, because the women don’t seem to be able to counter the plague of violence in their lives with some kind of pablum. But this all pales next to the War in Iraq. Underneath it all, there seems to be a genuine, and perhaps legitimate, bafflement as to how to “read” the movie. Most reviewers have treated it as a social drama, even a “tragedy” or a policier. It is none of these things. But I will save the important question of genre for later.
Mystic River is based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Set in South Boston, the book is a thriller with ambitious literary intentions. At first, it struck me as a kind of pulp Dostoyevsky, but upon reflection, it seems there a literary antecedent that is much closer to home. Mystic River is a kind of modern update of Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables. In Hawthorne, a corrupt local aristocrat denounces a poor farmer as a witch, and after the hanging steals the man’s land and upon it erects a sumptuous mansion, built by the dead man’s son, which becomes a locus of madness and degeneracy. The curse is only broken by a marriage of the scions of the two families. Mystic River also features a marriage of scions which is aborted by an act of “senseless” violence. In consequence, a pair of families also are bound over generations by a hereditary curse, which we gradually recognise as a degenerative moral disease.
25 years before the main action of the film. Three childhood friends are playing in the streets of South Boston. One boy (Dave Boyle) is abducted by paedophiles, one flashing a police badge, while the others (Jimmy Markum and Sean Devine) watch with a curious ambivalence. This ambivalence flourishes over the course of the film and infects the whole community.
It is a rich and complex moment that has to bear the weight of the whole film. The kids’ characters are sketched out in cameo. Dave is eager to please, the mascot, easily teased by the others. Sean is both drawn to trouble and too straight to get close. Jimmy is a proto-delinquent and obviously the leader. He goads the others into writing their names into the cement. He tells them, “..now our names’ll be there forever.” Forever. The word is repeated, and it introduces the grand theme of time. Dave is the last, and he has completed just two letters of his name, when the abductors pull up in a black car, interrupting the flow of time.
The “cop” quickly sizes them up, and makes a choice. Dave seems to be the most compliant. And he steps forward when called. The door opens, Dave hesitates, and Jimmy, openly suspicious, steps forward and peers in the backseat, which is filled with debris. This is the irreversible moment, the moment where the leader could have ordered them to break for shelter. But he does nothing. At that moment the “cop” slams his hand on the car roof. It is the first flare of violence. Dave gets in, while the others watch, passively. In the back of the car, Dave turns helplessly to watch his friends, as the abductors drive off.
Darkened cellar stairs. A pair of legs descending. Dave stirs with the light, bolts out of his sleeping bag. A child completely alone, utterly abandoned. “Please, no more”, he begs. A flash cut later, Dave escapes from his captors and runs through a nightmare forest filled with the sound of wolves.
His return amazes the community. The implication is that he should be dead. People are milling around. The verdict of the neighbourhood is in. “Looks like damaged goods to me”, says one citizen. Eastwood underlines this by framing Dave in the second story window, like Norman Bates. Below, Jimmy and Sean gaze up blankly. Dave won’t be coming out to play soon, if ever.
Jimmy and Sean resolutely believe that they are not victims of this early crime. They think their lives are different because they didn’t “get in the car”. But both onlookers have learned something from the symbolic encounter with evil. Sean has become a cop in self-defence, because the talismanic badge offers power and protection. Jimmy has learned the first lesson of violence. It works. If one can synchronise one’s personal violence to the hum of the violence of society, it makes a lovely song: Capitalism.
Violence and Crime are the shadows that dog the American Dream. Why exactly is soul-violence the great mythopoetic language of America…? It is a question of forms. Phylogeny recapitulates Ontogeny. But not perfectly. There is always tension between the anarchic personal violence and the cohesive somnambulist violence of the community. This is one of the themes of Mystic River. Eastwood tracks the Faustian bargain to its ultimate locus of consequence: childhood.
Let me briefly sketch the structure of Mystic River:
1. A curse that haunts two families is extended by a failed marriage of scions. (Brendan Harris [Tom Guiry] and Katie Markum [Emmy Rossum].)
2. A fragmented victim of a long-ago crime (Dave Boyle [Tim Robbins]) returns to kill a symbolic substitute for the paedophiles who preyed on him, hoping to exorcise the fear that he might repeat the crime.
3. Another “damaged” child (Silent Ray Harris [Spencer Treat Clark]) enacts karmic retribution for the death of his father, by killing the daughter (Katie Markum) of his father’s killer.
4. A reformed criminal (Jimmy Markum [Sean Penn]) returns to the scene of an earlier crime to set himself free from a domesticity he hates.
5. A cop (Sean Devine [Kevin Bacon]) fails to save an innocent (Dave Boyle) from insidious community mob violence.
The plot is quite daring for modern audiences, because it relies on a maze of metaphysically motivated coincidences worthy of Thomas Hardy or Fritz Lang. In a way, Eastwood is repudiating personal agency as it has been built up by Hollywood. In this film we see the protagonists bound by realistic, unbreakable ties of community, of guilt, of crime, and yes, even fate. Because of this, the film feels like something from long ago, like a Warners melodrama from the ’30s, where one kid becomes a gangster, another a cop, and the third a priest.
The three protagonists are first noted in their isolation. When we find them again as adults, they are all “going through the motions” of their lives. Crucially, Eastwood lets us sense their isolation in relation to others.
Dave Boyle is seen walking with his son on the same street where he was abducted 25 years before. He tells his son “…that drain swallowed every ball we had.” If they opened it up they’d find hundreds of balls. When his son expresses interest in retrieving them, Dave draws away, uneasy, over to the cement marker inscribed by the three kids, and is immediately shot back to the past. Eastwood flashes back to the moment of the abduction and then the paedophile’s angry face dissolves to Dave’s, an effect that is disturbing, considering what is to come.
Jimmy is glimpsed in the darkened back room of his grocery. His daughter Katie steals up on him, startling him. She kisses him, as it turns out, for the last time. They have a ritual, a formula for goodbye; they say “…Later.” Which is when the meaning of the exchange will become clear. But it is also a sign of the deferred life that Jimmy is living.
And Sean, now a state trooper, is introduced with his partner, a black cop, on the bridge over the river of the title. Kevin Bacon’s performance is the strongest thing in a film of great performances. There is something in his face which is always hidden, a kind of unusual dark repression; a frightening quality that I associate with Henry Fonda. We never really know what he’s thinking. But it isn’t blankness, an absence, but the more difficult projection of something hidden. His partnership with Whitey Powers (Lawrence Fishburne) is dysfunction itself, and Kevin Bacon’s first shocking action is to turn his back on him. This lack of cop-couple chemistry is not the only lack in Sean’s life; we soon learn that Sean’s wife has left him six months ago. She calls him but doesn’t speak. His partner remarks on his alienation. “Maybe she’s waiting for you to say something…”
Sean’s ticket out of the hood was the State Cops. Jimmy’s was crime. But somewhere in the past, Jimmy’s journey is derailed. His once promising career as a gangster is in deep freeze. Nobody can understand it. Not his homeboys, the Savage Brothers, nor the federal cops who stood back in baffled admiration as the 19-year-old kid was running a nearly untouchable crew. He is fixed in time.
So Jimmy’s journey, like that of the others, is a search for lost time.
Katie is loved as a daughter, but also as a symbol of that missing time. Katie is the product of a first marriage, a marriage that is marred by what is for Jimmy, a senseless conjunction. While he is serving a stint in jail, Marita, his wife, dies of cancer. This leaves him alone with a child, and responsible for her. In a way, Jimmy has never recovered from this. Katie has left him perpetually vulnerable, which makes for a heavy liability as a gangster.
His second wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney) has always sensed a rival. Katie and the ghost of her mother. “You got two other daughters, don’t forget it!” Her greatest fear is that Jimmy will flee deeper into memory and loss. People treat Jimmy as a guy who needs to be jostled into real time. They keep reminding him that he has “domestic responsibilities.” And he is strangely defensive on this subject. He worries that he will fall apart, and “…that’s all anybody will remember.”
The key to Jimmy’s character is a subtle moment during his other daughter’s first communion in the church, where the gnawing anxiety about his absent Katie turns into fatalism. Eastwood shoots him from the back. Jimmy turns around slowly, responding to a sound only he can hear. The sound of distant sirens. It should mean nothing, but we read a kind of cosmic fear on his face. This is a man who has it coming.
Dave Boyle has sustained what the audience (cued by the responses of the other characters) feels is a fatal wound, and yet somehow he still roams the earth. In order to survive he has buried the damaged child deep inside a cellar of himself. That psychological entity, which Dave calls “the boy who escaped from wolves”, is always glimpsed running through the woods, pursued by the howls of predators. The largest part of himself, is the part he fears. “I don’t know who came back, but it sure as hell wasn’t Dave…” he tells his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) switching from the first to third person and back again. Lately he’s been stalking the haunts of paedophiles and child prostitutes. But he can’t quite explain why. Certainly not to the cops.
Small Time and Big Time
Mystic River is difficult to read correctly without extended reference to Sergio Leone’s much debated, strange, and complex film Once Upon a Time in America. The films share much in terms of themes, situations, and mystery. The common elements are obvious: Lost Innocence, Time, Illusion, Crime and Violence, Betrayal of Friendship, a sense of Eternal Return. But there are direct echoes in Mystic River of Leone’s film. They are two films that use a Proustian recherche as their dramatic engine. What is explicit and symbolic in Leone is implicit and whispered (and sometimes offscreen) in Mystic River. Both movies give us counter-indications that should make us question their “obvious” story. Both filmmakers are bent on troubling the dream/narrative.
David “Noodles” Aaronson (Robert de Niro) is a small-time hood, suspended in time. He is lured out of temporal exile by dark psychological forces that are not immediately clear. He seems to have a deadly betrayal on his conscience. It’s an old story: friendship or family ties crushed in the maw of the business of crime. That’s why Gangster films are always transparent critiques of Capitalism. Gangsters are capitalists. Period. With them business ultimately has to come first.
As the audience journeys with Noodles into his past though the vehicle of his future, Leone builds up an expectation of some narrative revelation. Everyone wants a “Rosebud” moment from Leone. But he confounds that expectation. The end sends us back to the beginning like in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) but we now doubt the information we’ve been given. What Leone found fascinating about the source material and the “Harry Grey” character was the tension between the recollected memories and the cliched, obviously invented material. Was this some protective device, Leone wondered, some Brechtian distancing that would allow the bearer of dangerous memories to navigate, in the guise of fiction, the territory of his past?
The reason we must suspect the story that Noodles presents is because it absolves him almost completely of any moral responsibility. He is passive, dissociating even when he erupts in violence. Time is his junk, and memory is his vice. He is a narrator, not a protagonist of his life. He uses events and people almost as totems, to buttress his shattered inner life.
Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern), his lost girl, says to Noodles, “Memories are all we have left” and warns him not to open that last door. What’s interesting about the final confrontation between Max (James Woods) and Noodles is the absolutely rigorous ambiguity of it. De Niro gives no indication that he recognises Max, and though he is obviously moved when the pocket watch, the absolute symbol of the recherche, is produced, he does not seem to respond to it as a token of their lost friendship, but as the montage of ensuing memories proves, as the talisman of a journey though lost time.
The psychological levels (or screens) of Once Upon a Time in America:
1. An Author veiling his reminiscences in a novel. (The Harry Grey level.)
2. An inner core of “true” events and people. Elements that can be acknowledged without repression. (The epistemological level.)
3. The main body of the film, the elaboration of these “core” circumstances into a dream of memory. (The opium or pipe dream level.)
4. The guilt that forever obscures what really happened. (The level of Repression.)
5. The cinematic and personal dream world of the filmmaker. (The Nostalgic Level)
6. The repressed shadow story, never seen, that exists only as a negation of events remembered. (The level of psychological truth.)
This hierarchy of screens is why, despite the many heroic critical attempts, there can be no definitive “decoding” of what has happened to Noodles. It is a movie made to order for the postmodernist malaise. Just as it was impossible for Leone to separate the “real” America from his remembered celluloid America, it is impossible to sift the truth from memories. What Leone is doggedly asserting is that memory itself is the opium pipe. Though we can only guess at what is contained in the shadow story, we understand that its source, like in Mystic River, is a primal loss of innocence.
That moment is the death of little Dominic (Noah Moazezi), the youngest member of the gang, the ensuing revenge killing of Bugsy (James Russo) and the first suspension of time for Noodles. As the others stand or back off, Noodles explodes in violence, an act that allows the others to prosper while remaining relatively clean. His time in jail separates him emotionally from the others, and marks a rift in time. From this point on there will be growing tension between the two childhood friends, Max and Noodles. It can only lead to a fatal confrontation.
In Mystic River, the loss of innocence comes in almost identical cinematic terms. A brutal, almost happenstance event, and a moment where children look on while one of them takes on the guilty burden of violence, both in meaning and responsibility, and who becomes forever defined by the event. A sacrifice, a scapegoat.
In Mystic River, Dave Boyle is that character. But what is striking about Dave Boyle is his unusual empathy, compassion and insight. Some gifts have come out of the unimaginable trauma. When he confesses to his wife that he thinks he may have killed somebody, he makes us feel it, too. “I went…off.” But he is also ashamed of what is also a violent release. “It makes you feel alone – hurting somebody.” Dave is suddenly eloquent. “Makes you feel…alien.”
And later, when Jimmy is struggling in the aftermath of Katie’s death, Dave is tender with him, drawing out the stifled emotions. Jimmy talks about himself and his daughter, revealing a little more of that period of lost time: he confesses that he “was afraid of my little daughter”. This is the “Oscar Scene” of the movie. It is a classic Methody turn that the audience associates with “great acting”. But Clint makes it all part of a larger dialectic. Like a scientist, he is relentlessly cataloguing the types and dimensions of male pain.
Here we have a man trying too hard to shit out his pain. Sean Penn’s overwrought performance in the moment works to the benefit of the whole picture. We feel that it is just slightly off. There is a mild alienation effect. “We were like the last two people on earth, forgotten, unwanted.” He is baffled by his own lack of emotional response. “The thing is, I can’t cry for her.” That’s when Dave, with real tenderness, as if trying to console him, reminds him: “You’re crying now.”
So part of what makes Dave strange to the neighbourhood is this combination of deadness and emotionality. Unlike Noodles, he is not utterly an emotionally dead man. But it’s clear that he holds the key to the others’ lost emotions. He has an important function: Dave is the emotional core of the movie.
In what is perhaps the most sinister repetition of the story, Sean (with Whitey) and Jimmy unconsciously act out the re-victimisation of Dave in terms that are disturbingly similar to the original event. Dave describes it to Celeste as a burial. “They buried me in that cellar. Nobody came to help ol’ Dave.” Later that night, the cops themselves come for Dave. Whitey says: “I sent two of my ugliest troopers to pick him up.” Later, when the Savages recount this fact to Jimmy as evidence of Dave’s guilt, they are more specific. “They put him in the back seat, if you know what I mean.” A second fateful car ride. Then Dave is locked up overnight and interrogated. Once again he is at the mercy of “wolves” with badges.
In his zeal to prosecute, Whitey has crossed a line. He will do anything to break the case. And Sean, once again, is strangely ambivalent. Whitey accuses his partner of getting too personal. Ever sensitive, Dave picks up on the strange vibe between the two cops. He challenges Sean: “You’re somebody’s bitch, though.” Meaning he’s letting his partner push him around. The interrogation feels like another terrible violation, of rights, friendship, of personhood. This time, the adult Dave refuses to be a victim. Once again, he must deliver himself out of the metaphorical cellar. He doesn’t realise it, but his time in custody is the first nail in his coffin.
Eastwood is particularly interested in the benefits the community draws from the scapegoat. While the community seems to offer compassion and pity for “victims”, such an identification also functions as a not-so-subtle stigmata. Nobody wants to be a victim. Clint uses the audience’s unsettled identification between victim and victimiser to maximum effect. He also plays with the audience’s unconscious transformation of Dave Boyle from Damaged Victim into Suspect, despite numerous suggestions to the contrary. It is a red herring that is psychologically backed by the audience. And it is this crucial identification that naturally bothers Rosenbaum the most, because he dangerously misunderstands the last 20 minutes of the film.
“Damaged goods.” Like Max, the ambitious gangster, in Leone’s film, who takes notice of the gulf between him and Noodles, and ascribes it to some congenital weakness, some relentless sentimentality in Noodles that is utterly incompatible with “the real world”, the community understands that for some to prosper, others must fail. It is a fundamental law of capitalism, which is often masked by other more seemingly noble things.
Like Justice, for instance. Jimmy found solace in his first wife Marita and child, and when this is taken away, somebody must pay. According to Jimmy, he kills Just Ray Harris, not for turning him in, but because he robbed him (because of the consequent stint in jail) of the means to repay that solace. But should we believe this? If this were plain and “just” retribution, required by the law of the street, why pay $500 a month to widow and children?
Especially since Jimmy’s $500 dollar stipend raises up both his daughter’s lover (Brendan) and her killer (Silent Ray). Under the contemptuous eyes of the widow Harris (Jenny O’Hara) the Harris kids are taking their own first steps into violence. Violence that they have no means of understanding. The two families are bound together with invisible ties of crime. Just as the fathers are fatally drawn to each other, so are the children.
Is Jimmy a kind of sentimentalist, or does he just want to hide the crime, to bury it? It seems that Jimmy is a man who is afraid of his dead. His superstitious fear is evident. This is a man literally haunted, always looking over his shoulder, not sure what to expect. In the mortuary, alone with the corpse, we sense that he wants to touch Katie but cannot. He doesn’t even cry for his own daughter. All he can do is swear vengeance. Because that is the only thing, he thinks, that will keep his daughter in the ground. That is why to say that Jimmy is a man who is bent on revenge is too simplistic. He keeps putting it off. There is a peculiar Hamlet-quality to his “vengeance”. There is no heat to it.
Burial and its opposite, the undead, are the dominant metaphors for the film. When near the end of Mystic River, Jimmy tells Dave that “We bury our sins, we wash them clean.” it is a supremely ironic statement. In Mystic River, we notice that nothing stays buried for long.
The one test of the really weird is simply this – whether or not there be excited in the reader [or viewer] a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings, or the scratching of outside shapes on the known universe’s utmost rim.
– H.P. Lovecraft (6)
I believe that Mystic River meets and exceeds this test, and should be read as that rarest of genres: a film of Horror. And Clint, in his sardonic way, even gives the audience a major clue. It’s the brief quote from John Carpenter’s Vampires (1998). It feels right. Even as Leone’s story plays out as pipedream, Mystic River is in the more rigorous form of nightmare.
In its essence, Mystic River is kin to Dreyer’s Day of Wrath (1943), where the three dimensions, SOCIAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL and SUPERNATURAL, create a synergistic effect. But for such an effect of meaningful coincidence to pay off, there must be a rigorous balance between the elements. The game must always be in doubt. Here is Bazin on Day of Wrath: “The Action profits, then, from a perfect psychological justification, as well as a hypothetical, supernatural intervention and even from an ambiguity maintained on these two planes” (7).
So when Lisbeth Movin “confesses” at the end of Day of Wrath we feel her anger and despair at being betrayed by her weak, faithless lover, her yielding to the violence of the powerful but cynical witchfinder, and the possibility that she has indeed gotten unholy aid to “bewitch” Preben Lerdorff. Mystic River ends with a similar multivalent pair of “interrogations” which result in an explosion of ambiguity.
I think we have to distinguish those narratives which crudely manipulate fear or repulsion and disgust from that which Lovecraft correctly calls “the weird tale”. The word horror is derived from orrore, which means to bristle. It is an infinitely more subtle feeling than the postmodern “horror” in quotes. True horror doesn’t come from a series of vulgar shocks, but from a building up of relentless, almost unconscious aesthetic suggestions.
Mystic River builds its “weirdness” from a series of leitmotifs and repetitions. Once in that peculiar state of “awed listening”, you are on the lookout for uncanny synchronicity. There is no shortage of it. But it is camouflaged amidst coincidence. Dave getting into a car three times. The passenger turning around to face him. Two wild shots from the same gun. That gun used in two unrelated crimes. The parallel deaths of Ray Harris and Dave Boyle. The coincidental murders of Katie and the anonymous paedophile. The hockey sticks from the original street game which become the brutal weapon in murder. The two Ray Harrises, one who talks too much, one who is mute. Jimmy’s childhood suggestion that they steal a car, and Dave’s fatefully stolen car 25 years later.
The author of a work of horror must trigger mental associations that reverberate within. Just to show something “horrible” on a screen, automatically provokes a defensive self-consciousness. If people in the audience say to themselves, “That’s not real !!”, or even, “That sure looks real” then the game is over. Horror is not fake blood. It’s not particularly a visual genre. That is why there are few true masterpieces of horror in film.
Once upon a time, monsters were, for the most part, a warning against asocial behaviour. This type of monster was never defeated in any decisive way. These monsters came to punish transgression, and having done so, returned to their lair. These monsters represented the vast destructive power of nature. There was also another type of monster, probably a later innovation, that represented a sexual horror, usually of women. These monsters were the degenerate offspring of extra-categorical sexual unions, gods with maidens, of lustful women with animals and monsters. Conversely unions between lesser goddesses and mortal men, result generally in a different monster altogether: aristocrats. But the degenerate monsters were cooler; they had built-in pathos, because their wrongly mixed parentage made them utterly outcast. The Minotaur is the archetype of this monster. This kind of monster was to be sought out and destroyed. This reaffirmed social cohesion in the face of sexual anarchy, and is the standardised test of the aristocratic male hero. Killing cousins.
The moral universe of Horror is darkly deterministic, but not utterly. It is the twilight of free will. If, in the daytime, we move as free agents, we pay for it at night, when we dream, for most often we are in that shadow world. We can run, fight, kill, do impossible things, but we can’t alter the premise of the nightmare. We can only break free by waking up.
Mystic River‘s style plays on these same horror archetypes. Its “realism” belongs to the nightmare. The atmosphere is deliberately grim. We don’t feel the sun until the end of the movie. There are a number of scenes (like in the paedophile’s cellar, and those with Sean’s silent wife) that are pure and unashamed expressionism. Tim Robbins is consistently shot to increase his menace and emphasise his six-foot-five-inch frame in cramped spaces.
From a clinical perspective, Dave Boyle is probably too good to be true. One wants to believe that someone who had achieved moderate functionality would not suddenly experience such a dramatic crisis. Too little is known about where the threshold of psychic damage lies. How much psychic, sexual or physical violence does it take to destroy empathy? What makes a human victim into a sociopathic abuser? Dave Boyle shows us a human being in an intolerable psychic state. He has reached a borderline between repressing his rage and letting it erupt in sexual or physical violence. “Dave” is the offspring of paedophiles. Does he take after them, or not? He is literally an “abject” figure. “Once it’s in you,” he tells his wife, “it stays.”
Paedophile seems to be the only commonly acceptable synonym for absolute evil. They are irredeemable, when they serve their sentences, they must be tracked accurately, and the good people must be warned. Like Jimmy tells Dave, “Nobody cares if a child molester dies.” Paedophiles sorely try the humanist idea of the perfectibility of the human being. The fear of the lurking paedophile is symbolic; Jack the Ripper killed prostitutes. They were convenient. No one in Victorian England ultimately cared. In the same way, the paedophile preys on the child abandoned to the TV or the Internet. Invaded by the return of “the boy” Dave hopes that a little blood will send him back to the forest. He’s a symbolist, and he chooses a symbolic solution. Dave can become a paedophile or kill one.
So even if Dave Boyle doesn’t quite work as a living, breathing character, I suggest that we take him as a monster. Which is what Dave understands about his liminal condition. Commenting on the TV vampires he says, “They’re undead, but I think there’s something beautiful about it. You wake up and you forget what it’s like to be human.” But Dave isn’t your average vampire. He is a home-made revenant.
What renders [the ghost] intolerable is not so much that it is an announcement of death nor even the proof that death exists…What is intolerable is that the ghost erases the limit between the two states, neither alive nor dead; passing through, the dead man returns in the manner of the Repressed (8).
Far-fetched? Actually, Eastwood has used the device of the revenant twice before. It’s the heart of two of his westerns, High Plains Drifter (1973) and Pale Rider (1985). In Drifter, Clint rides into town and renames the town from “Lago” to “Hell”. It is a symbolic act. The role of the Revenant is to defend the helpless and to remind the unrighteous that they do actually live in a moral universe.
If Dave Boyle, the monster, is the return of the repressed, what exactly is being repressed?
Our deepest anxieties are about our children. We avoid the extent to which capitalism has made childhood a battleground and a killing field. We are struck mute at these zombie-like children who kill others and themselves. Or their primitive attempts at trading sex for love. But we, as a society, suspect that we could be doing more to protect them. We want to give them everything, money, time, video games, caring teachers, social workers, anything but love.
Children understand and exploit society’s open hypocrisy toward them. The sum total of collective wisdom would seem to be that children are a kind of chattel, privileged and valued only to the extent that they can demonstrate purchasing power. The liminal state of teenhood, unprecedented in the history of humanity, was created to celebrate that economic fact. It is a trial adulthood. The freedom without the responsibilities. This in turn seemed to infect and alter the idea of adulthood. People rightly reasoned, why not extend this state indefinitely? And so we prefer children in labour to child labourers. Films like Kids (Larry Clark, 1995) and Thirteen (Catherine Hardwicke, 2003) want to have it both ways: Enjoy the voyeuristic and moralised charge of the freakshow character of modern childhood, but celebrate children’s natural anarchism, selfishness and cruelty.
In Mystic River, the most brutal violence, the stuff that drew audible ripples of shock from the audience, is the outrageous violence of child on child. Maybe we can take movie stars killing each other, but for God’s sake not the children!! This is the supreme rhetorical moment of the film. Clint is violating an unconscious cinematic taboo. And we feel it. Horror.
This second trio of children functions as a dumbshow for the verbalised “adult” drama of the main story. In a bravura intercut, Eastwood juxtaposes the children’s drama with that of the “grownups”. A Brechtian device that forces us to question the “official” story. Brendan, (Tom Guiry) the eldest, explicitly functions as a surrogate for Jimmy. He is the inquisitor, the wounded avenger, whose love for Katie immediately turns into anarchic rage, which threatens to destroy his own brother. Like with Jimmy, his insistence on an answer, a reason for the crime, is shown as an ultimately futile exercise.
Silent Ray (Spencer Treat Clark) corresponds to Dave Boyle and of course to his own murdered father. He is the spooky one, always carrying the hockey stick, the emblem of that fatal long ago game. But Ray can’t explain why he killed Katie, any more than Jimmy can explain why he killed Just Ray. His muteness is almost divine. He is, like Dave, another revenant, who has come to deliver another message from the dead.
John O’Shea (Andrew Mackin) is identified with Sean Devine, both as the guilty bystander/accomplice to the crime, and more crucially as the gun-wielding doppelganger that Sean must face down. The kid thinks he’s in a movie. He wants Sean to draw on him. And he, bloody from a beating, speaks the ur-text line of the movie: “I don’t want him to go to jail, I want him fucking dead!!” These kids represent the deformities of the adult soul, naked, without window-dressing.
The ultimate outcome of the “dumbshow” is positive. Sean succeeds both in finding Katie’s actual killer, and preventing a revenge killing. This allows him to recover his own lost time, literally face his demon, and make his tentative re-entry to the domestic and human sphere. But because this is the real world, he cannot be everywhere at once.
What Clint presumes in Mystic River, and also in A Perfect World (Clint Eastwood, 1992) is that “the inner child” is not something warm and fuzzy. It is something monstrous, the fountainhead of violence. The consequence of soul-murder in childhood is adult violence. And that motive (such as revenge) is only a civilised excuse, a veneer, for the primal and murderous rage of the damaged child. This is why ritualised humiliation is part of both “boot camp” and High School, that same rage must be untapped and channelled through a process of conditioning so that under certain stimuli, “rational, civilised” men and women, can kill each other.
Before shooting him, Jimmy tells Dave: “…this part you do alone.” It is the ultimate denial that there ever was a connection between the three friends. This of course points up the irony that Dave Boyle is abandoned once more. This time, the car he’s getting into is a real death. This completes the narrative’s symbolic reenactment of the original crime. Jimmy kills Dave to scapegoat him definitively, which “buries” Jimmy’s growing feeling of responsibility for the death of his daughter.
When Jimmy learns that he has killed the wrong man, it is a paper cut – not, as Rosenbaum reads it — a tragic wound. It can be salved with kisses and lies. Jimmy’s wife, Annabeth, talks about his big heart, and his capacity for love. “I told them how big their daddy’s heart was.” That speech of Linney’s is the equivalent of “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” At the moment of confession, Jimmy finds himself entrapped by his own criminal legend. Jimmy has a dim realisation that he’s been set up for this. His wife has his number down cold. She’s used the bait of revenge to rekindle the banked fires of the lost criminal entrepreneur.
But there is a secret motivation that is more important than the illusory justice. Dave Boyle had to die to bring back Jimmy to the world of crime. With his daughter dead and “avenged”, Jimmy is free to be the great neighborhood criminal. He despises the straight honest life. When Clint shows us Jimmy at the apex of his domesticity, at the first communion, he immediately cuts, Eisenstein style, to the three Savage brothers. All those years, Jimmy has been in the grip of a kind of false dream. He is really one of them, a creature of the night. Time now regained, the real Jimmy can now emerge.
But focusing on Jimmy as the sole person liable is a mistake. He’s just the triggerman. It ignores the fact that Clint has spent the bulk of his film building a careful critique (it’s hard to see it as a celebration) of a subtle kind of mob violence. One where the women must accept their own share of the responsibility.
The Annabeth character invites almost a pro-forma charge of misogyny. But it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Mrs Harris is a harridan, who uses her long-suffering oppression as weapon, and refuses to provide an alibi for her son, because he tried to elope without telling her. Celeste Boyle, out of a poisonous fear, and maybe to protect herself and her son, betrays her husband into the dangerous hands of Jimmy Markum. And Annabeth is a white-trash Lady Macbeth, working hard to get her genes to the next rung of the ladder. Clint doesn’t go out of his way to flatter the women. But his take is more in the way of Fassbinder or Strindberg than say, Leone. And I’d be more worried if at the age of 73, Eastwood was sentimental about women.
Ultimately the women are crucial to complete the picture of the community’s dirty work. In Mystic River, nobody is spared. And I think, that while men might balk at this unromantic view of women, women themselves would recognise some truth there. Clint shows us tough women who can’t afford to be sentimental. Like Terrorists, they see sentimentality as a luxury. And he shows us lost child-men who see sentimentality as a birthright. Men are natural protagonists for movies because they live in a kind of fairyland of ideals. One good fiction deserves another. But underneath it all, there is the violence which gives them power, and out of that power comes complacency and sentimentality. How do those in the shadow of power get what they want? They make sentimental appeals, and if that doesn’t work, they undertake ruthless symbolic emasculations. Like the World Trade Centre. Now I’m not saying that Osama Bin Laden is actually a woman, but she might be.
Annabeth negotiates the crisis perfectly. She modulates immediately to a kind of narcissistic stroke-job that proves the utter deadness of Jimmy. “Everyone is weak, Jimmy, everyone but us.” This formula helps Jimmy to rationalise murder, by telling himself that Dave Boyle is already dead. What he has killed is a monster, a revenant, that has taken his place. “Hero” kills “Monster”. Killing Dave is a restorative act, a closing of a cosmic loophole that forced the community to face a wound embodied in the uncomfortable spectre of Dave Boyle for 25 years.
But Sean has a different take on this, one that puts us squarely back in Sergio Leone territory. “Maybe this is all a dream.” They are still 12-year-old boys locked in the cellar “…imagining what our lives had been if we’d escaped.”
Mystic River ends with the chilling vision of a sunlit parade, where it indeed seems, that all sins are buried and washed clean. McGruff, the crime dog, is watching over us. All communities want to justify themselves as good places to raise children, as havens from the real world. But it’s Chamber of Commerce bullshit. Eastwood borrows the Fordian symbol of the parade to convict the whole neighborhood, and by extension, the audience.
Following the wandering, half-mad Celeste, Eastwood lasers in on the unease of the community. When Celeste turns to him, Sean absently hugs his wife and child closer to him. Annabeth fixes a look of Darwinian contempt on her cousin Celeste Boyle. The strong and faithful survive, she seems to be saying. But can she be so sure? We note a new baby (Sean’s) and a newly fatherless child. During the parade, Sean and Jimmy acknowledge each other as equally complicit, but they can feel nothing. Remorse is the furthest thing from their minds. “The doer is always conscienceless; no one has a conscience except the spectator.” So says Goethe. By ridding the world of Dave and Silent Ray, they have gone from being spectators burdened by conscience to the relative, and thoughtless, bliss of action.
Though nearly forgotten today, Robinson Jeffers’ bleak poetic narratives were, for the most part, prescient horror stories about pastoral and desolate violence. As that arch-inhumanist predicted, western culture is in the grip of a spiritual civil war. “We still hold two sets of ethics, pagan and Christian, simultaneously. For instance, we say we should love our enemies, and not resist evil; yet at the same time we believe in justice, and that criminals ought to be punished, and that we should meet force with force, violence with violence.” (9) In his inhumanist view of humanity, and also in his sense of drama, Eastwood is deeply indebted to Jeffers. The rest of us are all hostages to this hybrid way of thinking. The drama of Mystic River forces the pagan world against the Christian, and air-seals the doors. One is forced to take sides.
If one is truly a Christian, resistance to evil usurps the far-ranging wisdom of God. It is utter resignation. You must take the George Bushes along with the Saddam Husseins. If you are a Pagan, you will have temporal justice, but that path is locked into a cycle of violence without end. The victimising/victim is the monster that engages our most perverse cultural contradictions. How do we answer these monsters? With Love or with Violence? That we live in a moral universe we cannot dispute. But the rules for it are still not available to us.
This is the human dawn. As for me, I would rather
Be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man.
But we are what we are, and we might remember
Not to hate any person, for all are vicious;
And not be astonished at any evil, all are deserved;
And not fear death; it is the only way to be cleansed.
– Robinson Jeffers, Original Sin (10)
Or do we prefer to say that it is all just a bad dream…?
- Charles Manson, Trial Transcript, November 1–20, 1970, accessed at http://www.mansondirect.com/11-1970.html, December 31, 2003.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Vengeance is Theirs” (review of Mystic River), Chicago Reader, October 24, 2003. Accessed at http://www.chireader.com/movies/archives/2003/1003/031024.html, December 31, 2003.
- Rosenbaum, 2003.
- Rosenbaum, 2003.
- Rosenbaum, 2003.
- H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature, ed. E.F. Bleiber, Dover Publications, New York, 1973.
- André Bazin, The Cinema of Cruelty: From Buñuel to Hitchcock, trans. Tiffany Fliss, Seaver Books, New York, 1982, p. 23.
- Helene Cixous, “Fiction and its Phantoms: A Reading of Freud’s Das Unheimliche”, New Literary History 7, 1976, pp. 525–48.
- Robinson Jeffers, speech to the Library of Congress, quoted in Rock and Hawk : Robinson Jeffers and the Romantic Agony, p. 23, William H. Nolte, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1978.
- Jeffers, The Double Axe & Other Poems, p. 146, Random House, New York, 1948.