since seeing Showgirls have I finished watching a film and felt so dirty about being a woman. Heralded as being one of the best films of 2003, Clint Eastwood’s latest directing effort, Mystic River, is a mixed bag of masculine passive-aggression disguised as a powerful drama.
On the surface Mystic River is the story of three friends who are forever changed when one of them is abducted and abused as a child. Thirty years later Jimmy (Sean Penn), Dave (Tim Robbins), and Sean (Kevin Bacon) lead very different lives. When Jimmy’s daughter is found dead they are brought together, confronting their past and dealing with the consequences of their actions. However it is beneath the surface that the truth of the film can be found, floating face down in a river of misogyny.
Mystic River is a film made by men and intended for women; if there’s one film an abusive husband would show his battered wife, it’s this one. None of the women in this film get an easy ride and the message to the female audience is clear: Men have the power and they will keep it. By looking at the way in which the female characters of the film are portrayed, it’s possible to see what has perhaps gone unnoticed by many, that the real victim of this film is the feminist movement.
Initially Jimmy’s daughter Katie (Emmy Rossum) is presented as a perfectly normal teenage girl who has an open and loving relationship with her father. During the course of Katie’s screen time, however, her character is transformed. By hiding her relationship with a boy her father disapproves of and dancing drunkenly on a bar, Katie’s pure character erodes until she is shot and beaten to death. The traumatic nature of her death can be seen as retaliation against the virginal archetype’s morph into the whore. Only when Katie has been killed and is lying on a cold slab can she be returned to her former appearance and status.
After Katie’s death, her stepmother Annabeth (Laura Linney) is a picture of appropriate bereavement. She demonstrates her roles of mother and wife, not only supporting her husband while dealing with her own grief, but also looking after her own daughters. But she undertakes the most abrupt character change possible outside of a thriller, as the film’s final moments see Annabeth morph into a cold-hearted bitch. So dramatic is the change that that one could be mistaken for thinking she had the capability to kill anyone who got in her way, even her own step-daughter.
Even the most useless of characters, Sean’s absent wife, seems to be in the film for no other reason than to provide another chance to show that all women are liars and need to be controlled. For almost the entire film she appears as a pair of red lips. She is the woman who stands between her husband and his daughter, the wife who ran out of her marriage, and the reason for his unhappiness. She returns at the end of the film so Sean can resume his role as husband and new father, ensuring he has a newfound power in the relationship.
Of all the characters in Mystic River, Dave’s wife Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden) is the hardest hit. Starting from the acceptable roles of mother and wife, she becomes Judas Iscariot. She is a betrayer to her vows and brings about the downfall of her family by suspecting her husband of killing Katie and then voicing her suspicions. At the end of the film she is seen as a bubbling wreck, left with nothing but the knowledge that she will pay every day of her life for her supposed sins—a punishment sufficiently harsh to send a message to the women in the audience: Betray your husband and bad things will happen to you.
The central and most unobvious example of misogyny in the film centers not on a woman, but on the feminized character of Dave. Through his abduction and subsequent abuse at the hands of two men, the “true Dave,” the young boy who would become a man, becomes instead a powerless, weaker, and therefore feminized shell of his former self. The last time anyone saw “Dave” was in the back of the car as he is driven away by his abductors. This feminization of Dave is heightened to such an extent that when he dares to demonstrate an ounce of the male aggression and power he has inside him he is punished and subsequently becomes another victim of female oppression.
Mystic River is a film that should have been made before the days when women had the right to vote, before they had entered the workforce, and before they had the ability to leave abusive husbands. Heaven knows that’s when the filmmakers believe things worked better. Despite a gripping story and brilliant performances, Mystic River is overshadowed by its blatant misogynistic tones. Every woman should be forced to see this film, if only so they can throw things at the screen.