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The End Of Mystic River Explained

Clint Eastwood's adaptation of Dennis Lehane's neo-noir drama Mystic River is a slow burn that ends with a visceral gut punch to the emotions. Starring Tim Robbins as Dave Boyle, Sean Penn as Jimmy Markum, and Kevin Bacon as Sean Devine, Mystic River introduces us to three best friends in 1975 during the horrific abduction of Dave by pedophiles posing as policemen, and again 25 years later in 2000 as a new set of tragedies bring the men back together, including the murder of Jimmy's eldest daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum). 

This actor's movie, with its solemn monologues and intense camera work that lingers on the faces of the characters rather than any action around them, marks a departure from Clint Eastwood's usual directing style. It ended up winning just about everyone involved award nominations. It often feels more like a play than a film, despite the sweeping aerial footage of Boston's Mystic River and its environs. 

The narrative structure of this tragedy is Shakespearean, adding to the feeling that Mystic River is far more than the typical cop drama for which author Dennis Lehane is known. Thanks to these timeless themes of forbidden love and missed connections, Mystic River has several huge twists before its explosive and heartbreaking finale. This part you don't need to do alone: Here is the end of Mystic River explained.

The kidnapping of Dave Boyle

Mystic River opens in 1975 with 11-year-olds Dave, Jimmy, and Sean playing pick-up hockey in the street in front of Jimmy and Sean's nearby houses. Their makeshift puck goes straight into the gutter and the bummed kids try to figure out what else to do with their unsupervised time away from the house. They settle on writing their names in wet concrete on the sidewalk with a twig, memorializing themselves in their neighborhood. Just as Dave is finishing up his "a," a serious-looking black car pulls up and two older men get out. Although they're dressed in plainclothes, one of them displays a pair of handcuffs pinned to his belt, implying they might be law enforcement. 

One of the men (John Doman) begins berating the boys for defacing public property and says he might have to take them in, but first asks where the boys live. When he finds out that Dave lives a number of streets over, they order him into the back of the car claiming they're going to have a talk with his mother. 

Instead, Dave goes missing for four days before he manages to escape. In a series of quick cuts, Eastwood shows us that Dave was kept in a stone cellar, begging, "No more please." The sexual violence is kept off-screen, but we find out that Dave was raped multiple times and tortured by both men over the course of those nightmare days. Jimmy and Sean, left behind unscathed, are also shaped by this horrific kidnapping for the rest of their lives.

The stolen boy turned traumatized man

"Looks like damaged goods to me," a bystander says about Dave Boyle after his escape from the kidnappers. Tragically, they aren't wrong. Dave Boyle 25 years later is a man still struggling, though he has a job, a wife, and a son named Michael who adores him. But he's never gotten over what happened to him, even though the perpetrators were caught and died long ago. Because of the nature of the crimes committed against him when he was 11, he has never been able to openly talk about it. Everyone feels sorry for him, but nobody really helps him, not even his wife, until he one day comes home at 3 a.m., covered in blood, with a huge knife wound across his stomach and bloody knuckles from fighting. 

He tells his wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), he was attacked and might have killed a mugger. She cleans him up and gets rid of his clothes, but becomes quickly suspicious the next day when the body of Jimmy's daughter Katie shows up brutally beaten and shot to death in a nearby park. Over the course of Mystic River, Dave's story changes every time he tells it: the garbage disposal cut his hand, the fence out back did, he cut it moving a couch. His inability to provide a consistent, plausible narrative leads to his tragic end at the hands of his friend Jimmy, who became convinced that Dave killed Katie. 

In fact, Dave had actually killed a three-time-convicted pedophile he saw sexually assaulting a child in his car. Celeste and Jimmy, lacking this knowledge, mistakenly believed he'd killed Katie, another tragedy in the story.

Boy witness turned adult thug

In many ways, Jimmy was as haunted by Dave's kidnapping as Dave himself. Jimmy is tough, but also often demonstrates great vulnerability. He actively lives in the shadow of that event, constantly thinking about what if it had been him who had been taken instead of Dave. He feels a complex mixture of guilt and relief. Fast forward 25 years, and Jimmy has become a family man and the owner of the local bodega. However, Jimmy also grapples with his criminal past and grief over his first wife Marita, who bore him a daughter, Katie, before dying of cancer while he was in prison. Katie's death triggers Jimmy's sorrow, and he decides to take it on himself to find and kill the murderer. 

"I know in my soul I contributed to your death," Jimmy says to Katie in the morgue. "But I don't know how." This turns out to be 100% true by the end of Mystic River. We find out that the family of Katie's secret boyfriend, Brendan Harris (Tom Guiry), has a terrible connection to Jimmy: Brendan's father, "Just Ray" Harris, was responsible for ratting out Jimmy and putting him in prison. Jimmy kills Just Ray and dumps his body in the Mystic two months after he gets out of jail. Jimmy goes on to forbid any of his daughters from having anything to do with a Harris, forcing Katie and Brendan to keep their love secret. Their elopement upsets Brendan's brother Silent Ray (Spencer Treat Clark, whom you might remember as the kid from M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable) to the point that he ends up killing Katie — partly by accident, but also to stop her from taking his brother away.

Childhood friend turned cop

Twenty-five years after Dave Boyle's abduction, Sean has taken the opposite road than criminally minded Jimmy: he's become a federal agent. He's called to the scene in the "old neighborhood" when Katie Markum's car is found splattered with blood and her body is discovered in the woods nearby, beaten and shot to death. Sean is going through his own personal issues as he investigates the murder. His pregnant wife, Lauren (Tori Davis), left six months before and Sean has no idea why. She calls him often, always from different numbers and phone booths, but never speaks. 

While Jimmy is doing his damnedest to thwart the official investigation and target Dave, Sean and his sergeant, Whitey Powers (Laurence Fishburne), discover that the gun used to shoot Katie had been used in 1984 by Just Ray Harris, an associate of Jimmy's who went missing shortly after Jimmy got out of prison. This, along with the suspicious 911 call about Katie's car, leads Sean to discover that Just Ray's mute son, Silent Ray, and his friend, John O'Shea, killed Katie. The crime started as a silly street prank that went off the rails when Katie started screaming and they accidentally shot her. Katie ran to escape, and the panicked boys hunted her down and killed her. 

But before Sean identifies the actual killer, he does look into Dave Boyle thanks to Dave's constant lying and strange behavior. This avenue of investigation actually contributes to Dave's murder since it feeds Jimmy and Celeste's unfounded suspicions about the traumatized man.

Katie and Brendan echo Romeo and Juliet

It's a tale as old as time. A family tells their children they are not to have anything to do with another, rival family, creating a forbidden-fruit scenario that tempts the children into taking a bite. Just as in Romeo and Juliet, Katie is expressly forbidden to have anything to do with, let alone date, any Harris in the neighborhood. But she's 19 and Brendan Harris isn't just cute; he's genuinely kind and gentle, and a far cry from the wannabe tough guys in the neighborhood. They keep their romance a secret, especially from Katie's dad Jimmy, and plan to elope in Las Vegas. When Dave Boyle finally tells Jimmy that he saw Katie at local pub McGill's on the night she died (a detail that adds to Jimmy's suspicions about Dave having killed her, since Dave haunts that locale), he says, "She looked happy." 

But just as forces conspired to keep Romeo and Juliet apart, so do they in Mystic River. Katie is murdered by Brendan's brother, and when Brendan finds out about it and his brother is charged, it is a kind of death for Brendan, too. "Say you love me!" Brendan screams at his mute brother, beating him and his friend John for killing Katie. Brendan's entire breakdown might have resulted in more death had detectives Sean and Whitey not shown up in time. Brendan lost the love of his life and his brother in one fell swoop, adding to the ongoing trauma of this neighborhood.

Celeste Boyle and Annabeth Markum at odds

Because Jimmy Markum feels responsible for Dave Boyle's kidnapping and trauma, he tries to do favors for Dave whenever he can. This includes introducing him to his second wife Annabeth's (Laura Linney) cousin, Celeste. Celeste has a nervous disposition to equal Dave's, which at first likely gave them common ground, but by the end of the film has actually contributed to Dave's demise. Celeste tries to be helpful, especially in the wake of Katie's murder, but it's clear folks tolerate her because of her connection to the Markum family.

As the neighborhood matriarch, Annabeth is a force to be reckoned with due to her strong personality as well as her husband's status. She makes no secret of her dislike of Katie, as her presence reminds her that Jimmy is still in love with his dead wife Marita.

By the end of Mystic River, Annabeth has a new kind of control over Jimmy now that his golden child is gone. She shows she's been waiting for her moment to seize power over Jimmy's heart. When Annabeth finds out it was Silent Ray Harris and John O'Shea who killed Katie and that Jimmy killed Dave because he and Celeste both suspected Dave of the crime, Annabeth immediately turns on Celeste, feigning shock that a wife would ever think her husband was capable of murder. Annabeth absolves her husband for killing innocent Dave, explaining to Jimmy that he has so much love in his heart he will always protect his family, no matter what evils he might have to commit. 

The limitations of vigilante justice

"You going to send Celeste $500 a month like Mrs. Harris?" Sean asks a bereft Jimmy, who has just learned he killed the wrong man. For Jimmy, revenge was his form of justice and had been ever since he killed and dumped Just Ray Harris in the Mystic for ratting him out. But as much as Jimmy hated Just Ray, he felt responsible for all the people Ray left behind, including the young sons. He remained forever entangled with the man's family. 

That's an uncomfortable kind of revenge that also echoes Jimmy's killing of Dave Boyle. Because Jimmy always felt a sense of responsibility to Dave for the trauma he endured and survived—and because Jimmy was so grateful it hadn't been him taken that fateful day—we can assume he wouldn't have left Celeste and Michael out to dry, especially after they found out Dave had killed a known pedophile working the neighborhood. "Thank you for finding my daughters killer, Sean. If only you could have done it a little faster," a heartbroken Jimmy says to Sean, another Shakespearean tragedy of errors that adds so much to Mystic River's drama.

As for Dave's revenge, he couldn't kill the men who hurt him or escape his memories of them. While both of his torturers died in prison for what they did to him—one by suicide—he remained haunted by trauma. When he witnessed a pedophile engaged in sex acts with a child, he brutally murdered him. However sympathetic viewers are to this act of vigilante rage, it cycles back around to get Dave killed.

The taboo subject of male sexual assault

One night after Katie's death and Dave's encounter with "the mugger," Celeste comes home to find Dave watching a vampire movie in the dark. He is clearly distraught, saying about vampires, "They're undead, but I think maybe there's something beautiful about it. Maybe one day you wake up and you forget. What it's like to be human. Maybe then it's okay." This powerful monologue suggests Dave spends a great deal of time dissociated from himself even as he is so entrenched with the trauma. He calls himself "the boy who escaped from the wolves" and reveals to Celeste, "I'm talking Henry and George. They took me for a four-day ride. And they buried me in this ratty old cellar with a sleeping bag, and, man, Celeste, did they have their fun. And no one came to help old Dave then. Dave had to pretend to be someone else." 

As Celeste gets more agitated, Dave confesses, "Dave's dead. I don't know who came out of that cellar, but it sure as sh*t wasn't Dave!" Dave's PTSD is severe and has fragmented his psyche. While all trauma is challenging to discuss, it's often even more taboo for men and boys thanks to constructions of masculinity that demand stoic silence, particularly in the blue-collar milieu of Mystic River. Male survivors often don't get the mental healthcare they need to heal. Killing the pedophile broke something anew in Dave. Because he wasn't able to talk about what happened to him as a child for so long, his increasingly erratic behavior leads his wife and old friend to think he snapped and killed Katie.

The backseat as a motif

There are many visual motifs in Mystic River, including the river itself, of which Jimmy says, "We bury our sins here. We wash them clean." The etching of the boys' names in the sidewalk, with Dave's only half finished, is another. But a more disturbing theme in the movie is that of the backseat of a car. This small space has a huge impact on all of the events in Mystic River, symbolizing a loss of control over the characters' own destinies.  

When Dave was kidnapped by the perverts, they put him in the backseat. He looked back, a haunting fear in his eyes as his friends watch him get taken away. After Katie's death, Sean sends cops to pick up Dave and they put him in the backseat yet again. We can only imagine how terrified and retraumatized Dave must have been, remembering that other time he was taken by supposed cops. When Jimmy's goons come pick up Dave so Jimmy can get him to confess, they again put Dave in the back. In his moving performance, Tim Robbins embodies the little hurt boy that still lives in Dave's tall, adult body.

The other victim of Mystic River, Katie, is also seen in the backseat in Mystic River. When we first meet Brendan, he's hiding in the back of her car, startling her. Later, police find blood in the back after she's shot. It's seeing Katie's abandoned car that sparks Jimmy's extraordinary grief over her loss and eventually leads to Dave's murder.

Ripples of trauma in families and communities

"Sometimes I think, I think all three of us got in that car. And all this, it's just a dream," Sean says to Jimmy at the end of Mystic River. "In reality we're still 11-year-old boys trapped in a cellar. Imagining what our lives would have been if we'd escaped." Dave's four-day ordeal in 1975 never left any of the boys, and the stain it left on the community was indelible. Their names carved into the sidewalk, with Dave's unfinished, is testament to this. 

After Katie's murder, Jimmy has a disturbing monologue where he talks about the fact that if he'd been kidnapped, he would've been destroyed like Dave and never would've had the courage to talk to beautiful Marita. He says if he'd never met Marita, Katie wouldn't have been born. If she'd never been born, she couldn't have been murdered. It's a shocking line of thinking that shows the long-term ripples of trauma and how they can affect not just those experiencing it firsthand, but also the subsequent generations. 

If Just Ray hadn't kept the gun he used to rob a store, his son Silent Ray wouldn't have been able to use it on Katie. She might have lived. And if Dave hadn't spent so much time dissociated, he might have been higher-functioning, like Sean, and nobody would ever think him capable of murder. 

The only person posed to break the cycle by the end is Sean, who gets back together with his wife and finally meets his daughter, Nora. Sean shows he will be keeping an eye on Jimmy, and hints that an official kind of justice might one day be served.