"Mystic River" tells the story of three childhood friends whose lives are changed beyond their knowing when one of them is kidnapped from their street in South Boston and sexually abused. Years later, another act of violence reunites them and forces them to reckon with the way the seemingly random evil made their fates inseparable.
Considering the violence they do to each other, it's interesting that the bad things the characters do in "Mystic River" are motivated almost entirely by love. The movie almost implies that love has a morality unto itself. Sean Penn's character's wife has that consoling speech at the end telling him whatever wrong he did, it was done for love.
I was thinking, every terrorist's wife must think that.
Does love override social morality?
What the film teaches us, and what I think spiritual awareness teaches us, is that when you understand the context, you have a deeper understanding for why people do what they do. And when you do then you're ready to forgive and you're ready to love, not withstanding the heinous acts. There's always a historical context, and a karmic context, a mythical context, which means the spiritual inheritance and also the ideologies that have shaped your spiritual worldview. There is a cultural context, there is economic context, there's emotional context. Here, everybody does the worst kind of things but they do them because they love.
After seeing the movie, I came back saying to myself that even the worst terrorists love something or somebody. Nobody goes and does a suicide bombing or becomes a suicide bomber just because--you know, we kind of trivialize it-- saying it's because they've been promised all these women in heaven. But we don't understand the anguish and the pain and the loss and the loss of their love that they have suffered. If we did, we'd have a deeper understanding for why they do what they do.
So to me, morality is really understanding, from which comes compassion, from which comes forgiveness, from which comes understanding. This movie presents it very well because we end up feeling real compassion for everyone in this movie. Except for the first scene where we probably don't know enough about the pedophiles. But maybe if we understood them, we'd feel compassion for them, too.
At the end, Kevin Bacon's detective seems to be at peace with Sean Penn going unpunished. How did that sit with you?
I struggled with that for a mere moment before I realized he wanted to bring that self-perpetuating cycle to an end. He had reached that deeper understanding where you want to say, "OK, I want to bring this karmic cycle to a conclusion." So I though it was elegant.
The movie was set so strongly in Catholic Boston...
Yes, Sean Penn has a huge cross on his back with a shamrock. It's the perfect symbol for guilt and spiritual yearning at the same time, and such a big part of the whole Catholic tradition.
Yet it seemed that this Eastern idea of karma was a huge force in this story. After his daughter had died Penn says in a moment alone, "I know I contributed to your death somehow." And then he seeks revenge. What does karma really tell us about how to act in that situation?
There are two things that have been said about karma in the Eastern traditions. The first thing is, "Unfathomable is the mystery of karma." It's not just my karma. It's my karma, your karma, collective karma, the karma of our ancestors, the karmic debts that we pay. It can only be called a tangled hierarchy.
The second thing said about karma is that karma is the ultimate affirmation of free will and the person who is aware. So the past has determined my present and it has determined the situations and circumstances of my present. However, what I do in this moment is an exercise of free will. So karma sets up the situation, but not the choices you make about the situation.
He represents an archetype. I lived in Boston for 20 years, and that's a very, very strong archetypal energy, the local boss, the chief, the one that you're afraid of.
Your last book is about synchronicity, and how to use it positively in life. In "Mystic River," two violent acts take place on the same night, and in that sense synchronicity drove the plot of this movie. But the results were very negative.
Every good story is a story of synchronicity. In fact, if you really go deep into any story, it's a story of synchronicity. So we generally overlook that but a story is a story because it has synchronicity, otherwise there is no story.