I'm sitting here, nearly two hours after the credits of Mean Creek have finished rolling, I still feel that sick feeling in the pit of my stomach that won't go away. I can remember sitting there, speechless, as the credits rolled; how I felt light-headed after I left the theater; how I started shaking and my knees started knocking. I can remember clearly that this 89-minute descent into moral hell is the single most disturbing film I've ever seen. And I'm still piecing together how to put any of it into words.
I'll start a couple of years ago, when I read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood and have since never gotten over the idea that it still is very plausible that two men can walk into a home, murder four people in cold blood, and do all of it for virtually nothing. The book scared the crap out of me because of the fact that it happened, things similar to it still happen, and they happen to people just like you and I. I get the chills when thoughts of demons or ghosts or aliens arise, just like everyone else, but what makes me keep the light on at night is the fact that I'm one of millions of people on this earth who are capable of doing anything. And by 'anything,' I don't mean mowing the lawn.
Mean Creek is obstensibly about that dark possibility that lurks within everyone, that one moment when reason is thrown away, the stars are aligned, and disaster strikes. It's really about the aftermath, though; and not just the logistics, but the strange things that we as humans do when we're in a situation that we never imagined we would have to encounter in a million years. And it all begins because Sam (Rory Culkin, officially the best actor in his famous family) is pissed. Pissed because the fat kid, George, beat the crap out of him for basically no reason.
Nobody likes the fat kid, so Sam's older brother, Rocky (Trevor Morgan), and his other friends devise a plan to pay George back. The idea: invite him on a boat trip, get him to play Truth or Dare, strip him naked and get him in the water, and make the fatass walk home embarassed as can be. What actually happens: every single thing that shouldn't.
First of all, George is a nice guy with some issues, and most of the kids in the group decide right quick that the whole plan to ruin him isn't right. Unfortunately, it's a problem with the eldest of the gang, Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), who wants to seek revenge whether George is nice or not. And if you've seen Deliverance (or even the film's enticing trailer for that matter), you know where it's all headed. What writer Jacob Aaron Estes has up his sleeve in the film's masterful denoument, though, is beyond explanation.
Most movies involving kids attempt to strike a cord with its audience where the awareness of innocence wipes clean all sins of a child. Estes' script is so precisely shaped that we don't see redemption from the opening moments; every single scene leading up to the film's climactic moment is accompanied by a stomach-churning tension, a sickening awareness that these kids will not behave like the kids we see in most movies. These kids will behave like adults, desperate for a way out, clawing for a solution, and willing to do anything to achieve it. We cringe when we see George doing and saying genuinely nice things as he's led to the water because the kids are cringing inside. We struggle with what to think of him, just as they do, and then things are turned upside and we're left struggling with what to think of everyone else. The cast, led by Culkin, initially occupy the general stereotypes where we see them fit, but then we see how tragedy and circumstance change them. This mostly unknown cast conveys a feeling of reality that did more than send a chill up my spine.
That feeling of reality will hit you like a ton of bricks. Mean Creek, though tinged with the earthiness of a David Gordon Green film in the beginning, descends into a shocking moral quandary that makes the insidious "Dueling Banjos" of Deliverance seem like a bedtime lullaby. Gone is that cinematic trick of ambiguity (an easy way out for a movie like this), away goes the idea that these kids will persevere, out goes any comfortable solution whatsoever (that the film's solution is so noble is even more sad). Creek is a perfectly plausible set of events that could happen to anyone, and that's what makes it so deeply terrifying.
In its final moments, I fought the urge to look away, Mean Creek is so painful to bear. But it's a necessary pain; we learn from this movie, about moral choice and responsibility, and about the power of social dominance and the consequences of revenge. I wasn't just crushed by this movie; I was so scared I could hardly move, provoked only to silence as the credits rolled. This is real stuff, a movie that reaches a new level of effectiveness in that it burrows into your mind and your heart and puts them both in torment. I was reminded more than a few times of Peter Weir's great Picnic at Hanging Rock during the film, probably because - until now - it was the most disturbing, terrifying film I'd ever seen.
Mean Creek is a towering achievement, but I wouldn't wish it upon anyone. I'll never watch it again, as I enjoy sleeping at night. It's getting an "A" because it's a masterwork, not because it's wistfully romantic like Before Sunset. I'm recommending it because things of this nature happen and we must be faced with them, not because it's fun. A