Mystic River Ending, Explained

‘Mystic River’ is a neo-noir crime thriller that runs surprisingly deep under its calm, residential Boston setting. Directed and scored by Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, the dark story of three childhood friends is based on the novel of the same name by Dennis Lehane and follows their entwined lives which collide when one of their daughters is murdered. A brooding, winding mystery that builds up to a melancholy end with no winners, the climax of the movie might have left you wondering about the underlying motivations of some of the characters. Well, we’re here to clear things up. Here’s the ending of ‘Mystic River,’ explained. SPOILERS AHEAD.

Mystic River Plot Synopsis

‘Mystic River’ opens with three young boys playing hockey on the streets of a Boston neighborhood. As they’re carving their names on a patch of wet cement, one of them is picked up and taken away by two men in a car who claim to be plainclothesmen. It is later found out that the kid, Dave, was abducted and abused by the two men and was able to escape after being held captive in a cellar for 4 days.

The story then shifts to about 25 years in the future, when all three are grown up. Jimmy, who now owns a store, has a 19-year-old daughter named Katie, who he loves dearly. After telling her parents that she is going out for dinner with her friends, Katie shows up drunk at a local bar where she is seen by Dave, who was abducted as a child and seems mentally fragile. This is the last time Katie is seen alive, and Dave subsequently returns home late at night, injured and bloody.

When questioned by his concerned wife Celeste, Dave says that he might have killed a man who tried to mug him. The next morning, Katie turns up missing and is soon discovered dead in a park, close to where her abandoned car is found. She’s been beaten and shot, and Jimmy is crushed by her death. One of the lead detectives on the case, Sean, is the third childhood friend who is seen in the film’s opening.

As he and his partner Whitey investigate the murder, two prime suspects come to the forefront: Dave and Katie’s secret boyfriend, Brendan, who Jimmy inexplicably dislikes. Dave’s wife Celeste also slowly starts to suspect her husband of murdering Katie when he starts acting strange and nothing shows up on the news about the mugger he allegedly murdered. She goes and tells Jimmy, who is also trying to find his daughter’s killer with the help of his thuggish friends, about her suspicions.

Mystic River Ending: Did Dave Kill Katie? Who Really Killed Her?

As Jimmy and the Savage brothers pick up Dave and take him to a secluded bar on the banks of the Mystic River, Brendan discovers that his father’s gun, which was hidden in their house, is missing. He confronts his mute younger brother Ray Jr. about the missing gun and proceeds to assault him and his friend, blaming them for the murder of his girlfriend.

Simultaneously, we see Jimmy confront Dave about killing his daughter, which Dave initially denies, saying that he killed a pedophile instead. Jimmy pushes Dave until the latter finally “confesses” and then proceeds to stab him. Meanwhile, Ray Jr’s friend pulls out the gun and points it at Brendan. Just as he is about to shoot, Sean overpowers him and stops Brendan from getting shot.

The next morning, Sean informs Jimmy that his daughter Katie was killed by Ray Jr. and his friend, only to learn that Jimmy has killed Dave. A pedophile’s body is also discovered, and Jimmy realizes he’s killed Dave for nothing. However, when he expresses remorse, his wife defends his actions, saying that he has a big heart and what he did was not wrong.

In the closing scenes of the movie, we see the main characters at a parade. Jimmy seems calm and remorseless about murdering his childhood friend, whereas Dave’s wife Celeste seems on the verge of a breakdown since she most likely suspects Jimmy to have murdered her husband. Sean, who has recently reunited with his mysterious partner Lauren and their daughter, Nora, signals to Jimmy that he’s gunning for him.

The uncomfortable ending of ‘Mystic River’ answers the question of Katie’s murderers but spawns a host of other questions about the characters’ motivations. Part of why it takes so long to track down her killers is because Ray Jr. and his friend had no visible motives to commit the crime. In the movie, when Jimmy wonders the same thing aloud, Sean tells him that they were just playing around with the gun they’d found and that they shot Katie by accident. Fearing they’d get into trouble, they ended up killing her.

Though this seems like a vaguely valid reason for a child, there might be other forces at play too. On multiple occasions, we see how attached Ray Jr. is to his older brother Brendan, who is seen accompanying and talking in sign language with his younger sibling. Their mother, Esther, is also shown to be an unlikable character, and Ray Jr. confesses that Brendan is the only one he loves. It is therefore likely that he would have had some feelings of jealousy towards Katie, his brother’s girlfriend, especially if he found out that Brendan was about to run away to Las Vegas with her.

Though it is unclear if Ray Jr. actually wanted to kill her, it is safe to assume that he had a motive to intimidate or harm her in some way. It is also suspiciously coincidental that he chose the eve of Brendan and Katie’s departure to cross paths with her whilst wielding a gun. We also see some unexpectedly bloodthirsty and remorseless characters appear near the end of the film, namely Jimmy’s wife, Annabeth, and Ray Jr’s friend, who is only seen a few times during the movie.

In this case, we see Ray Jr’s friend show a sudden burst of rage towards Brendan, wanting to kill him. Though he’s just been beaten up by Brendan, the kind of hatred Ray Jr’s friend displays towards Brendan strongly hints at a darker reason. This could have played a part in Katie’s murder as we know that Ray Jr. was with his friend when they called the police.

Why Does Sean Not Arrest Jimmy?

Near the end of the movie, Jimmy essentially admits to Sean that he killed Dave. However, we see Jimmy looking carefree at the parade soon after, and though Sean makes a threatening signal to him, there seems to be no hurry to bring the murderer to justice. With the clear motive of (wrongly) suspecting Dave as his daughter’s killer, it seems it wouldn’t have been too hard to bring Jimmy in. Seeing Jimmy walking free at the end adds to the feeling that a conclusion is elusive and all is not solved in the movie.

The reason for this, however, is seeded earlier on when we see Sean being apprehensive about arresting his childhood friend Dave. This is also why he gets emotional trying to get Brendan to confess to having a gun — to shift the blame away from Dave. Though Sean eventually manages to crack the case and clear Dave’s name, in a delicious twist of irony, he now finds his other childhood friend Jimmy involved in a murder, and that too of their friend’s no less. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is not keen to arrest Jimmy immediately. This is one of many subtle yet interesting ways in which Eastwood has tied up this masterpiece.

Did Jimmy Kill Brendan’s Father?

Multiple clues are dropped during the film regarding Brendan’s father, Ray Harris. Jimmy’s dislike for Brendan is initially explained by Jimmy as being due to his father, Ray. We later find out that Ray double-crossed Jimmy in the past, for which he ended up going to jail. However, two months after Jimmy’s release, Ray went missing.

This is damning enough. However, the point is further driven home when we indirectly find out from Sean that Jimmy’s been sending money every month to Brendan, most likely out of guilt for killing his father. It is especially sickening to hear Sean ask Jimmy if he plans to start sending money every month to Dave’s young, now fatherless son as well. Furthermore, it is poetic in a “coming full-circle” way that Jimmy’s daughter is killed by the son of the man Jimmy killed all those years ago.

Who is The Old Man That Abducts Dave?

In the opening scenes of the movie, when Dave is abducted as a kid, we briefly see an old man in the front seat of the car. The man wears a prominent gold ring that is worn by the clergy, and we later learn that he and his accomplice sexually assaulted Dave. Though not part of the original story of the novel it’s based on, this detail was added into the movie since it was filmed around the time of the Boston Catholic Archdiocese sex abuse scandal. (This would go on to become the subject of the Oscar-winning movie ‘Spotlight‘).

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