DEBUT FEATURES: Mean Creek (2004)

Mean Creek (USA, 2004)
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Starring Rory Culkin, Ryan Kelley, Scott Mechlowicz, Trevor Morgan

Coming-of-age films and films about the loss of childhood innocence have often used the natural environment as a means to contrast the naivety of their protagonists with the harsh realities that they come to understand. An interesting by-product of this is that films of these sub-genres reflect the environment of the country in which they are set, and the means by which that environment is personified. In a densely populated country like Britain, films as varied as Heartless, Tyrannosaur and The Selfish Giant all take the built-up, urban environment of major cities and make them the embodiment of all that is chaotic, faceless, unpredictable, violent and, in the case of Philip Ridley's film, evil.
In America, where whole sections of the country are more sparsely populated, different parts of the country take on this characteristic. While the major cities of New York, Chicago and Los Angeles are often associated with aspiration and hope (albeit ironically in the case of Chinatown and Mulholland Drive), the deserts, mountains and canyons take on this mantle of the cruel, heartless, unforgiving wilderness in which humans struggle to survive. As well as inspiring a whole litany of westerns, this aspect of America has given rise to films as eclectic as Deliverance, Stand By Me and Fargo, in which people go to pieces in the middle of nowhere. Mean Creek joins this illustrious company, managing to embrace all their component parts while still carving out an identity of its own.
Out of all the films previously mentioned, the closest comparison is with Stand By Me, Rob Reiner's much-loved adaptation of Stephen King's novella The Body. There is an obvious similarity in the set-up; both stories revolve around a group of children (mainly boys) getting into scrapes in the wilderness, and the main plot point is based around a dead body. And there is also a thematic similarity, beyond the obvious point about the loss of innocence; both groups of people learn the consequences of violence through a series of events which shape the people they become as adults.
One of the major differences, however, lies in the visual approach to the two stories. Reiner takes a very considered, almost choreographed approach, heavily relying on tight close-ups of individual characters during the tensest moments - which works wonders on the scene with the switch-blade and the gun towards the end. By contrast, Jacob Aaron Estes (in his first feature film) opts for a more low-key, naturalistic approach, using hand-held cameras and more middle-distance shots. While in Stand By Me we are a conscious voyeur, peering into the boys' world and deliberately getting caught up in it, in Mean Creek we are a more passive observer; we just happen to be along for the ride, so that when things go south it quickly becomes shocking.
When telling any kind of story about revenge, one has to deal very quickly with the moral question - in other words, how an audience is expected to feel about the actions being perpetrated by the people we have paid to watch. This decision can be the difference between a film which questions people's own moral compass and foisting upon them two hours of nothing but meaningless violence. Any director worth their salt has to put their cards on the table very early on, so that we can decide if we want to sit through the consequences.
What separates, say, Get Carter from, for instance, I Spit On Your Grave (besides the subject matter) is the moral hypocrisy of the latter; we are expected to endure the graphic rape scenes as justification for the return brutality, and are also expected to gain enjoyment from the retribution being meted out by the main character. Notwithstanding the film's many other problems, its gleeful disregard for human life makes the whole experience of watching it at once offensive, depressing and tedious. Get Carter, on the other hand, recognises that revenge ultimately destroys the people doling it out just as much as their victims, either by literally killing them or, in the case of something like The Hitcher, leaving them just as hollow and warped as the villains they were fighting.
Mean Creek wins points for intelligence in this regard, taking a familiar set-up (a boating trip that goes wrong) and turning it into an examination of the inward-looking nature of bullying. Josh Peck's character, who goes on the trip under false pretences, uses insults to defend himself against his own insecurities; the video footage at the end reveals him to be much more of a gentle soul, who lacks the means to articulate who is really is and uses force to get what he wants in the meantime.
This aggression, and the image he projects as a result, is what leads to George getting killed - but Estes is also smart enough to convey that the same projection to cover insecurities is what drives the other characters as well. It's put across to an audience in different ways, and the facade lasts varying amounts of time; while Millie goes to pieces pretty quickly, Marty uses outright aggression as he tries to keep the truth from getting out - and in doing so, he becomes the same kind of bully as George, albeit with actual blood on his hands. The film is brilliant at showing the moral disintegration of the characters, filling you with anger at what they have done but also sadness that their childhood has been wrenched from them.
When Mean Creek was first released, it was compared to films like River's Edge and Bully, which attempted to, in the words of Roger Ebert, "deal accurately and painfully with the consequences of peer-driven behaviour." Ebert's analysis of how the film approaches "situational ethics" (how our notions of right and wrong change based on circumstance, rather than being measurable absolutes) is very astute, as are his comments about the film being useful as an educational resource for teenagers. But an equally valid, if unusual comparison, is with the South Park episode 'Toilet Paper', in which the boys enact revenge on a teacher by covering her house in said material. Take out all the references to The Silence of the Lambs and The Godfather Part II, and you have a pretty close comparison in terms of how friendships become strained and unravelled, both by the deed itself and the resulting fear of judgement and punishment.
The main performances in Mean Creek are really compelling, and unlike many coming-of-age films have stood the test of time. Rory Culkin - the brother of Mccaulay and Kieran - atones for his previous performance in Igby Goes Down wringing out the full dramatic potential of his part and making the tension between him and his older brother believable. Josh Peck - who voices Eddie in the Ice Age films - is very convincing as George, both in his slow, lumpen physicality and the pent-up, impotent anger in his delivery. The entire ensemble hangs together very well, though it would have been nice for Carly Schroeder to have been given more to do as Millie.
Mean Creek's visuals are both one of its most distinctive qualities and one of its main drawbacks. Besides the use of middle distance I referenced earlier, the film has an evocative, washed-out palette filled with earthy tones thanks to the work of Sharone Meir, who would later lens Whiplash. But while this suits the setting very well, some of the camera movements are either unremarkable or rather amateurish; a couple of scenes on the boat draw attention to the hand-held camerawork in a way that takes us out of the action. There's a reason why the film did so well at the Sundance Film Festival - besides its many qualities, it goes out of its way to look like an independent, low-budget film, and eventually that starts to grate.
The other problem with Mean Creek is an occasional lack of atmosphere. Once the incident with George has happened, the tension ratchets up rapidly, but there are unnecessary longeurs in the build-up where the action drifts, somewhat aimlessly. The lack of a memorable score (by TomandAndy, who would later score The Strangers) means you don't get that creeping sense of dread that made Deliverance work so well - the sense of terror potentially lurking behind any tree as the company makes its way down the river. The film isn't fatally hamstrung by this, but it is one area in which Estes can improve as a filmmaker.
Mean Creek is an impressive and largely successful debut feature which manages to put a fresh spin on a potentially well-worn subject. Buoyed by its talented ensemble cast, it is an engrossing and generally efficient 90 minutes which lands nearly all of its dramatic punches and provides food for thought as well as quickening one's heart rate. Whatever Estes goes on to do in the future, this is a confident debut which will please both fans of the genre and people examining these issues for the very first time.


You can check out my thoughts on other renowed cult classics, including Deliverance, The Hitcher and Heartless, by checking The Movie Hour podcast from Lionheart Radio.

NEXT REVIEW: Stick It (2006)