Over the last year the federal trial of James “Whitey” Bulger has captured headlines and drawn a lot of public attention, as the reputed gangster has been accused of murder, extortion, racketeering, and other crimes. Bulger was, according to prosecutors, the head of an organized crime group that virtually ruled the entire region of South Boston. Bulger and his henchmen reportedly shook down local businesses for money, were involved in gambling, drug dealing, and prostitution, among other crimes. In one alleged crime, Bulger forced the owner of a South Boston bar to sign over ownership of the bar to pay off loan sharking debts owed to Bulger. For those who crossed Bulger and were unwilling or unable to make amends with him, prosecutors allege, Bulger or one of his cohorts would often resort to violence and murder as a means of seeking recourse. A recent news report in USA Today examines the contemporary circumstances of the neighborhood Bulger’s crew once ruled, and noted how much things had changed since Bulger’s heyday (AP, 2013). The film Mystic River, set both in the South Boston of earlier generations and of today, offers a dramatic tale that also sheds similar light on the manner in which once closely-knit neighborhoods have changed markedly in recent decades.
Like the neighborhood where “Whitey” Bulger used to hold a position of power, the setting for Mystic River offers a glimpse of what a similar South Boston neighborhood used to be like a generation or two ago. In South Boston of the mid-1970s, many people were born, grew up, lived their entire lives, and died all in the same neighborhood. Families knew and looked out for each other, and there were few secrets among those who lived in these neighborhoods. Neighborhood kids played in the streets, and the parents of one set of kids also looked out for the other neighborhood kids. This sort of closely-knit neighborhood is, in many parts of the country, a thing of the past (D.K., 2013). As gentrification and other factors change the demographic, social, and cultural landscape of such neighborhoods (Grant, 2003), people like “Whitey” Bulger are increasingly seen as relics from a period whose time has passed.
In a typical urban setting in the northeast United States in the 1970s (and earlier), many communities were close-knit, with tight social networks. The film Mystic River is built to a significant degree on the nature of this dynamic, as well as the manner in which changes in the city and in the larger society over generations has allowed such environments to evolve into more impersonal, less closely-knit communities. In Mennel (Chapter 1), the issue of the “city film” is addressed. In brief, such films allow the city or setting in which they take place to function as a virtual character; the particular characteristics and, for lack of a more apt term, the “personality” of the setting is as relevant to the story as are the words or actions of the human characters.
Other films, such as Roman Plolanski’s Chinatown, have addressed issues related to cities; the entirety of the film’s plot is centered on the inner workings of Los Angeles city politics related to water access for the residents of the city. The factionalism among those with different points of view about how best to address the city’s water needs and concerns sets of the dramatic conflict at the heart of the plot. While Mystic River addresses an entirely different set of concerns where urban issues are concerned, the film shares some commonalities with Chinatown, in the sense that issues related to the city are dramatized and portrayed through the actions and lives of the main characters. At the beginning of the film a group of children are seen playing in the neighborhood streets when they are accosted by a pair of men who identify themselves as the police. One of the young boys is taken into custody by these men; we subsequently learn that he was not arrested, but was in fact kidnapped and sexually abused by the men.
In a sense, this incident represents a loss of innocence both for the young boys and for the city itself. It may be unrealistic to adapt the changes wrought by this incident to the entire city, but at least from the perspective of the main characters, the day that young Dave s abducted was a turning point in all their lives. As the other boys first report to the adults in the story that Dave has been taken away, the tight social network in the neighborhood allows the word to spread quickly, and allows the adults –all of whom seem to know each other- to quickly ascertain that there is a problem. While there are certainly contemporary neighborhoods where close-knit communities exist, many of the technological and social changes of the last several decades have irrevocably altered the shape of such neighborhoods.
As the main characters in the film are portrayed as adults, the dramatic structure and narrative serves to highlight the manner in which neighborhood friends grow apart, and this can be seen as an allegory for the larger changes see in cities in recent decades. The once close-knit members of this circle of friends have entered very different adult lives; one has become a police officer; another has become a criminal; the third, the victim of abuse at a young age, appears emotionally and developmentally stunted by his experience. While all three characters still live near each other, the closeness they experienced as children is gone; moreover, their current relationships and interactions with reach other do not seem to echo those of their parents and other adults of previous generations. Although this story only focuses on a handful of characters, it effectively demonstrates how urban neighborhoods can be socially close-knit and tight; conversely, it reveals how changing circumstances and social conditions can lead to the residents of a once-tight neighborhood drifting apart and assuming social and cultural roles that reflect the
Associated Press (AP). “Whitey Bulger may not recognize South Boston of today AP.”http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/06/10/whitey-bulger-south-boston/2408657/ [Boston] 10 June 2013: MA. Print.
D.K. “The Economist explains: What is driving urban gentrification?” The Economist. N.p., 16 Sept. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Grant, Benjamin. “What is Gentrification? | Flag Wars | POV | PBS.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. N.p., 17 June 2003. Web. 29 Sept. 2013.
Mennel, Chapter 1. Modernity and the city film: Berlin. Mystic River. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Perf. Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Bacon. Warner Bros., 2003. Film.