Mystic River

Mystic River

A Freudian Fable

Clint Eastwood directs a mythic narrative of a person who kills off his own id.

Aaron Belz

Sigmund Freud called the first layer of human psychological development the id. The id is like an animal. It wants food—it cries. It wants love—it cries. It doesn’t get its way—it throws spaghetti across the room. The id knows what it wants and is very straightforward about trying to get it. As a person grows up, the id becomes the seat of sexuality in its most base sense (if you’re familiar with Freud, you’ll recognize this as an important subject for him). The id drives, among other things, the erotic.

The second layer Freud calls the ego, or the personality, and its job is to regulate the id. It is basically a reality check. The ego recognizes that there are other people in the world who have needs, too. It also recognizes value in things like spaghetti and restrains its temper.

Freud’s third layer is the superego, or the conscience. It takes the ego’s awareness to a higher level, helping a person distinguish, more abstractly, between right and wrong. It is the superego that gives a person moral character. The superego also facilitates self-righteousness and judgmentalism.

Depending on the shape of the superego, a person may develop into a hero or a villain—or perhaps a tragic figure, conscience-bound in a situation in which doing the right thing doesn’t benefit him. Always taking the high road, it may seek revenge. The ego, according to Freud, also holds the superego in check, running interference between the needy id and the conscientious superego.

Mystic River tells a mythic tale of a person growing to adulthood and killing off his own id. This is represented in the lives of three working-class Bostonians, a psychosexual trinity acting both separately and in concert. We first see them as boys playing street hockey in the hardscrabble Boston neighborhood of their youth. At this point, the id, ego, and superego are barely differentiated, with one boy a little more arrogant than the others (the superego). They are all wearing baseball caps. The ball rolls into the sewer and the boys begin to write their names in nearby wet concrete. A 1970-something car pulls up. A big man with a badge and handcuffs emerges. Under false pretenses, he and a friend take one of the boys (the id) to an unspecified rural location and do horrible things to him. Of symbolic significance is a golden ring on the right hand of one of the kidnappers, bearing an insignia of the Christian cross.

This turn of events shatters the friendship, and we next meet the boys as adults leading separate lives in the same neighborhood. The id (Tim Robbins) has never recovered and is now an introverted and overcautious father and husband. He walks his son to school every day, obviously haunted by memories of his own decimated boyhood. The ego (Kevin Bacon) is a police detective who spends his workdays symbolically patrolling the streets of Boston with a smart and balanced partner (Laurence Fishburne). The superego (Sean Penn) has emerged from a life of crime to run a small grocery store. He is now the father of a stunning 19-year-old girl (Emmy Rossum) and husband to a proud and dutiful wife (Laura Linney).

When the superego’s daughter turns up brutally murdered, the ego’s job is to solve the crime. All roads eventually lead to the reclusive id, tortured, jealous, deranged, and altogether untrustworthy. After all, it was he who last saw the deceased alive, dancing atop a local bar. It was he who dragged himself home later that night with bloody hands and a serious knife wound in his abdomen. It was he who must have been hungry to reclaim his own lost youth by taking some blood of his own.

Realizing this, the superego arranges to meet the id at a riverside bar, gets him drunk, forces a confession, inflicts his revenge, and throws the corpse into the Mystic River. Though apparently justifiable, the deed catapults him into a dark night of the soul, and he stays up all night nursing a bottle of whisky.

The ego, meanwhile, discovers that the actual killer was someone else. As daylight approaches, he finds the superego lolling drunkenly on a sidewalk and informs him that his daughter’s killer has been apprehended. A moment of Shakespearian (one might even say Oedipal) crisis ensues, as realization unfolds upon fateful realization. Resolution begins to dawn as the ego implies that he will not report his old friend’s crime. “Sometimes I think all three of us got into that car,” he says, lamenting their combined fate. (He doesn’t know how right he is.)

The denouement is even more Shakespearian. First, no one outside of the Freudian threesome and their spouses knows who killed the id, or even seems to care; the deep misprision of human identity has begotten a kind of surreal naïveté.

Second, in a scene ripped from the pages of Henry V, the superego’s wife mounts him on their bed and says, in a low tone, “You are the king of this town” (as if he had some sort of divine right to kill the innocent id).

Third, a final public occasion brings the action to balanced conclusion: at a neighborhood parade, the id’s widow looks thoroughly befuddled. The id’s son is seen riding on a float, collapsed in despair. The ego, however, stands cheering with wife and child, the picture of contentment. The superego emerges from his brownstone wearing sunglasses—a bit self-conscious, but reassured by his applauding wife, his two flunkies, and a knowing wink from the ego.

The story has an eerie resonance for American viewers for several reasons. In the afterglow of Puritanism, the fear of sex and the corollary denial of bodily pleasures are commonplace. Despite the apparent advancements of the sexual revolution, Americans are in a state of confusion about the purpose of our genitalia. Deep in our seething collective unconscious we yearn for freedom from the pressure they put on us. While a few of us play out Jack-the-Ripper fantasies in real life, and many more of us sleep around without compunction, the vast majority of us find a more private but ultimately equally futile outlet in pornography. Sexually speaking, we are damaged goods, longing for the noble conscience of Eastwood’s grocer just as we long to be real kings.

Also—and perhaps more apropos of this point in our cultural history—we have developed a profound distrust of CEOs, religious leaders, military officials, and even Presidents who abuse their power to gain sexual pleasure. Who, for example, rain down Armageddon on medicine factories in Africa while receiving fellatio from interns. Who preach to a television camera during the day and pursue reckless adulteries at night. Who (especially in Boston) lead thousands of trusting parishioners in Mass while secretly stealing altar boys’ souls. Of this final situation Eastwood speaks directly: Remember the kidnapper’s ring?

We know, whether we will admit it or not, that a holy purgation must come. Mystic River provides a mythic narrative in which it does, albeit at the expense of a necessary aspect of human nature. The id is reduced to flotsam. The superego, though shocked by the double loss of a daughter and a childhood friend, finds psychological equilibrium. The ego plays along, apparently willing—at this stage in life—to give up on sexuality. In the end, a certain catharsis belongs to the viewer.

Aaron Belz is a columnist for Paste. His writing has also appeared in Books & Culture, First Things, McSweeney’s, Boston Review, and a few other places. Contact him via if you’d like.

posted by editor ::: January 04, 2004 ::: philms :::