Neighborhood values

by Henry Farrell on October 22, 2003

I went to see _Mystic River_ last weekend – strongly recommended. Sean Penn is outstanding, Tim Robbins very nearly as good, and there isn’t a single bad, or even middling performance. It’s the best movie that I’ve seen in the last two years. However, I still reckon that you should read Dennis Lehane’s original book too. The movie concentrates almost exclusively on the individuals and the moral choices that they make. It thus misses out on one of the richer aspects of the novel – the relationship between honour, community and assimilation among immigrant groups.

There’s a telling difference between the movie and the book. In the movie, Sean the future cop, and Jimmy the future criminal, are next-door neighbors when they’re growing up. In the book, they’re from different parts of town. Sean lives in the Point, a respectable working class neighborhood, and Jimmy lives in the Flats, just twelve blocks away, but a crumbling community. This difference defines them – Sean assimilates into the wider community, and marries away from his roots, while Jimmy, after a short-lived marriage to a Puerto Rican (which diminishes his standing among his friends), marries into a family of local crooks. Sean moves on, or tries to; Jimmy never leaves the neighborhood where he was born.

Both the book and the movie are about random and inexplicable violence, and how people try to deal with it. For Jimmy, the solution lies in the neighborhood, and in its code of honour. At the beginning of the book, he’s gone straight – he isn’t involved in the local community, which is falling apart around him. The local criminals aren’t smart or organized enough to get their act together; yuppies are moving into the neighborhood and changing it, perhaps irrevocably. When Jimmy’s daughter is murdered, he’s shattered; but he recreates himself through an honour slaying which reasserts a certain kind of order, even if the killing is fundamentally mistaken in its object. And this honour code is the corner-stone of community. Jimmy should have been king of the neighborhood; it’s gone to ruin while he concentrated instead on running his local grocery store. At the end of the book, he’s about to take up his crown again, displacing the local thugs who’ve been screwing things up.

bq. That’s not how you did it. You kept your business out of your neighborhood; you didn’t make the neighborhood your business. You kept your people clean and safe and they, in gratitude, watched your back and became your ears to whispers of trouble. And if occasionally their gratitude came in the form of an envelope here, a cake or a car there, then that was their choice and your reward for keeping them safe.

Sean, in contrast, takes the random violence that he deals with in his day-to-day life as a cop, and displaces it onto his wife, ruining their relationship. She’s unfaithful, and has a baby which may or may not be Sean’s – she leaves him. Sean’s reaction to the murder of Jimmy’s daughter, and Jimmy’s subsequent, misplaced act of vengeance, is to apologize to his wife, to make it clear that no matter whether he is the biological father of his daughter or not, he is prepared to accept her; that he wants his wife and daughter to come back. He does precisely the opposite to what Jimmy does – rather than standing on his honour, and seeking to avenge a wrong that’s been done to him, he apologizes, he forgives. Sean and Jimmy become implacable enemies (or, more precisely, realize that they’ve been enemies all along without knowing it). They’ve embraced different – and radically incompatible – ways of coming to terms with America.

The power of the novel is that it doesn’t judge between the two, or if it does judge, it does so very subtly. Jimmy’s crime is horrendous – but it revitalizes a community which has become a waste land. The Fisher King heals himself, and his people too. Sean’s act of forgiveness redeems his relationship with his wife and daughter – but it’s purely personal in its effects. It doesn’t help the community where he grew up, and which he has effectively foresworn in favour of a wider America. It’s a retreat from randomness and disorder, rather than a solution to it.

These are choices that face all members of tightly-knit immigrant communities – whether to stick with your own, or cut off these thick relationships in favor of the weaker ties that hold together the wider society that you live in. _Mystic River_ has an extraordinarily subtle discussion of this dilemma, but doesn’t come down on the one side or the other. I remember going to a conference on Anglo-Irish literature ten years ago, where one of the panelists complained that nobody had written the Great Irish-American Novel. _Mystic River_ ain’t Augie March, but it’s surely a contender.



David W. 10.22.03 at 6:50 am

Thanks for the post. I just got back from the film myself, which I also enjoyed, although not as much as you. Hearing about the book helps make sense of some puzzling moments. For example, Laura Linney’s Lady MacBeth speech seemed entirely out of place. Sounds like it has a bit more context in the book. All in all, I don’t think the movie was able to convey some of the texture (gentrification, neighborhood social order/politics) of the book. Or maybe I just didn’t get it.


Henry Farrell 10.22.03 at 7:28 am

Laura Linney’s speech is taken almost verbatim from the book, where it makes much more sense. When she tells Jimmy that he’s a king, it resonates in the parade scene – that’s effectively what Jimmy is becoming. But this element of the book is very much underplayed in the film, which just concentrates on the personal relationships (with a couple of glancing references to the neighborhood and what’s happening to it). Still love the film though – I think it deserves a truckload of Oscars. But it needed the social context to be up there, say, with “The Godfather” (which excels in depicting the quasi-feudal relationship).

I dunno where “Mystic River” came from – Lehane’s other novels are no better than competent-to-good. It’s the latest addition to an under-appreciated genre of social realist Irish-American crime novels – George Higgins’ “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” is another cracker.


Sindelar 10.22.03 at 8:19 am

I too just saw the film last night and loved it. There were parts towards the end I didn’t understand that the book might have explained (can’t explain because it would involve a spoiler) but the fantastic moodiness and great acting by Penn and Robbins were superb. Unforgiven though still tops the list of Clint’s films.


Sindelar 10.22.03 at 8:30 am

One thing I didn’t understand Henry, was your comment that violence was random and inexplicable. I thought the film could have been read as describing violence as very much a part of an integenerational cycle of psychological propensity or, in grander and more Eastwoodesque fashion as willed and unwilled consequence of cycles of revenge and honour.


Henry 10.22.03 at 2:27 pm

Sindelar – you’re right – I’ll have to think about how that would change my interpretation.


Hugo 10.22.03 at 2:56 pm

I haven’t read the book, and I’m fully prepared to believe that it is good, but I’m afraid I can’t say the same for the film. I thought Tim Robbins played an absurd caricature of a man with a history of sexual abuse. The scene where he’s watching the horror movie really had me cringing (on the other hand, he was good in the police interrogation scene). Likewise, I found Sean Penn’s tough-guy-with-a-sentimental-centre pretty hard to take. All the over-emoting after his daughter’s death, wildly underlining his grief struck me as actually diminishing it – less is almost always more.

(spoiler alert)

Plotwise, it followed all the conventions of a thriller: the withholding of vital information, the very guilty-looking character who turns out to be not guilty, the deus ex machina of sorts to explain the murder (since the kids actually had nothing to do with the meat of the plot), the damaged(sexually abused) character who is essentially good but has to get sacrificed in the end…. The direction and script were plodding, I thought. I didn’t absolutely hate this movie, it was certainly competently done, but I thought it didn’t really rise above the run-of-the-mill thriller level.


carla 10.22.03 at 5:46 pm

I’ve been debating whether to see this movie. I read the book some months ago, and couldn’t put it down–though I really hated the ending! I thought it didn’t make sense (though it’s been sufficiently long since I read it, and enough other books have interevened), but my feeling at the end was that it didn’t have to end that way to be true to the characters. And at the same time, I could see it, and it was so depressing that I’m not sure I can see the movie.


seth 10.22.03 at 11:20 pm

I never read the book but really enjoyed the movie – this post makes me anxious to read the book, too.

As a resident of the area, I appreciated the movie on a different level: it’s interesting to see the conventions of the thriller played out with such attention to local details (throwaway lines like “some of us are going to the Cantab later” got a vocal crowd reaction in the theater where I saw it).

But, yes, the movie did feel very personal, very detached from a larger context (I kept wondering about Jimmy’s parents; are they still in the neighborhood?). I imagine the book adds that dimension.


Invisible Adjunct 10.24.03 at 1:31 am

You’ve convinced me to read the book. I did enjoy (or perhaps appreciate would be a better term) the movie, but some parts of it — esp. near the end — didn’t seem to add up.


Leo 10.28.03 at 3:04 am

George Higgins does come to mind:

But _The Digger’s Game_ is his best novel, and all of you who like this sort of thing should go and read a few more of his. He was a U.S Attorney in his day, and not a bad one.

He asked my father once (who has a sort of cameo in Eddie Coyle) if he could keep him from making a fool of himself. He replied, “Before, or after, George?”

Heh. I need to read the book. I’m afraid it’s been my experience that people who routinely kill people don’t seem to be bothered. I booked someone charged with a double homicide in my town a year or two ago and he asked me to call his wife. She said, “oh” and asked what court he would be in the next day.

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