The opening shots of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River are clipped and simple: a city by a river (South Boston, serving here as archetype of the post-industrial American city as faded remnant); a second-floor porch in a neighborhood that has seen better days, where two men drink beer and talk about sports; the street below where three young boys are playing. A moment later a car will pull up and—with the kidnapping of one of the boys by two pedophiles masquerading as a cop and a priest—inaugurate a cycle of violence that takes the rest of the movie to play itself out. Little of the violence will appear on screen, yet its presence will be felt in virtually every frame: we will be reminded at each instant of the memory, the dread, the threat, or the lingering aftermath of violence, the residue of psychic pain that will nurture some fresh evil. Victims will become victimizers, and victimizers themselves come to be seen as the helpless agents of a destiny just beyond their control.
The abruptness of the opening establishes the tempo for everything that follows. We have hardly registered the place and the players—the three boys, Jimmy, Sean, and Dave, horsing around aimlessly, carving their names in a freshly cemented sidewalk—before we, and they, are interrupted. There is scarcely time for our adult sense of danger to kick in before young Dave (visibly the least self-assured of the three) has allowed himself to be ordered into the car by the false cop, ostensibly to be reprimanded for vandalizing the sidewalk. There is a fraction of a second to notice the trash piled in the back of the vehicle—and by then the car is speeding away down the block. Dave, disappearing into the distance, looks out the back window at his friends while they stand by helplessly. The film cuts immediately to a very brief scene of Dave, held prisoner in a dark basement, recoiling as one of his abusers comes down the steps for another round; cuts again, as abruptly, to Dave running through woods as he escapes his captors; and finally shows a muted street scene of the neighbors, including the other two boys, looking on as the expressionless Dave is restored to his mother.
The prologue ends; decades pass in a blink, and we find ourselves in the same neighborhood, scarcely changed, where we meet one by one the grown-up boys. Jimmy (Sean Penn), whose flare of cocky resistance saved him from Dave’s fate, is a reformed thief who, after a prison term, has become the proprietor of a corner grocery; Sean (Kevin Bacon), who was saved because he told the abductors that his parents lived on that block, has succeeded in becoming a police detective but is separated from his wife and visibly troubled; and the unfortunate Dave (Tim Robbins), who has a wife (Marcia Gay Harden) and a son, as well as an air of depression beyond words. We come …