When people are faced with a tragedy they cannot make sense of, they try to explain it to themselves in terms of things they understand and can control. They just need something to pin it on, something to channel their frustration into. Very often, a movie will concentrate on selling one of those explanations to the audience, simply because it takes far too much courage to do otherwise. One reason why I treasure In the Bedroom and Mystic River is that they are possessed of that courage.
Both films feature characters who are faced with a personal tragedy. In both cases, they eventually answer with violence and have to deal with their guilt, although for differing reasons.
In In the Bedroom, Matt ends up killing the man who murdered his son, but it is not purely a matter of revenge. His rage against his son’s killer may have remained impotent, were it not for the fact that his wife could not take it. It is her inability to deal with the tragedy that makes her turn on him and goad him into doing it.
In Mystic River, on the other hand, Jimmy is well capable of violence, and it was just a matter of finding the man who murdered his daughter so he could extract revenge. However, he finds out afterwards that he killed the wrong man.
Both men are consumed with guilt afterwards. In the Bedroom ends with a shot of Matt lying in bed, staring up at the ceiling while his wife sleeps beside him. You sense that, in the end, he is utterly alone. In Mystic River, on the other hand, Jimmy’s wife tells him that he did the right thing:
Because it’s like I told the girls. Their daddy is the king. And a king knows what to do and does it.
Think about this: the case where the wife is supportive is the one where the husband has killed the wrong man.
The key isn’t whether or not the guilty man was punished, but how the characters react to tragedy. Revenge is a very visceral reaction — irrespective of how civilized we would like to be, we cannot deny the fact that we are often dissatisfied with less than an eye for an eye. Both women regard their men as the instrument to achieve it. Their reaction is determined by whether they deem their husbands capable of the task.
What if it had turned out that the man who got killed at the end of Mystic River was indeed guilty, while the man who got killed in In the Bedroom was actually innocent? My guess is, these couples would have turned out the same way even then.