"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.
But here we have the power of intention. 9/11 is a classic story of synchronicity. You have these guys from different parts of the world orchestrating these events, getting into planes at the same time. It was a perfect example of synchronicity used diabolically. The only difference between a divine outcome or a diabolical outcome is the intention.
Sean Penn's character certainly has intention.
Yeah. But don't forget, his most overpowering emotion is his intense loss of this girl, his daughter. He has some redeeming features. One is that he totally loved this girl of his. He gave up his criminal activity for her. The soul is a place where divine and diabolical both live together. We say, "The sinner and saint are merely exchanging notes." The saint has sinned; the sinner will be redeemed and become a saint. And so the human soul is a place of ambiguity. People talk about the angels and the fallen angels. The Buddhists say the peaceful and the wrathful deities. The Hindus say the devas and the asuras.
These energies create the play of life. Every soul harbors both energies it's just [a question of] which one gets nurtured. It's very interesting in the first scene when they write their names in the cement, David [Tim Robbins' character] doesn't get to complete his name.
What do you take from that?
Well, the karmic message was right there in the first scene.
That he's not complete...
Not too complete.
It's very well done.
Clint Eastwood, the director of the movie, makes great use of the sky. What was your sense of what the sky meant?
Hope, redemption from guilt, from suffering. The heavenly promise of relief from suffering. And I think he did beautifully that next to last scene, I think, when the camera goes back and forth for a bit between the dark river and the sky.
Was God there, in the sky?
I didn't think of it as God so much as freedom from this cycle, ending the cycle of retribution and suffering.
But God does make an appearance. When Sean Penn realizes his daughter is dead, he is yells to the sky, saying, "No, God!"
I think that's appropriate. The line between victim and criminal becomes totally blurred. I have been asking myself, What's the difference between a war hero and a war criminal? The difference is which side wins. If you win, then all your people get medals and they're called heroes. If you lose, they get tried as war criminals. That's, I'm sure, how many people view us in what we did in the bombings of Afghanistan and Iraq. Had we lost to the Japanese, they certainly would have tried us as war criminals for having caused in a few seconds the incineration of half a million people.
So we, too, have this voice, as Sean Penn's character says, "We contributed to your deaths, somehow?" It did seem like America after 9/11, at least at first, had that sort of karmic response.
You have to be very careful when you say that, for political reasons. But in the end, yes, we contribute to everything that happened as a collective psyche and you know, even when we blame Hitler for the Holocaust, we really cannot. The Holocaust is a manifestation of the collective psychosis that was occurring in Europe at that time and Hitler was a symbolic manifestation of that. Because if there wasn't that collective psychosis, Hitler wouldn't have survived one day.
Let me just go back to where we started, with love. At the end the focus is on these two women, one the wife of Sean Penn who is very proud and very composed.
She's Margaret Thatcher.
She's a Margaret Thatcher and Golda Meir and Indira Ghandi rolled into one.
But where's the other woman, Dave Boyle's wife? She seems to have failed somehow to love her husband in the way that her counterpart has.
She couldn't come to terms with her husband's death wish. He doesn't deserve to live anymore.
She's the only one who seems not to have found peace.
The rest of them realize how it all is connected. They understand, as Sean Penn says, that it wasn't just her husband who went in the car with the sexual predators. All three went in that car.
I was thinking in terms of survivor's guilt. But perhaps it's deeper than that, as you say.
That's the tangled web of karma. Those we hate and are repelled by are reflections of ourselves, and they are a reflection of a web of karmic relationships that we share with them.