Sean K. Cureton

A Clockwork Oregon

In Movies on VOD: Recommendation of the Week on January 17, 2015 at 10:30 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Mean Creek (2004)
Directed by Jacob Aaron Estes
Netflix Rating: Really Liked It

Jacob Aaron Estes’ feature length directorial debut is a stunning contribution to independent film in its encapsulation of the emotional fragility of youth, the feeling, moreover, of being misunderstood, passed over, and abused a near constant state, lending Mean Creek all of its coercive menace and turbulent bluster. At the heart of Estes’ film is the concept of crime and punishment, the judge and jury irrelevant when confronted with a wrong that is culturally pervasive, infecting the film’s protagonists with equal parts plaintiff and defendant, their individual contributions to the narrative’s great offense marking each of them as culpable to an extent, their willful or silent acquiescence to the film’s vileness an acceptance of the communal sense of guilt and remorse that generates the film’s high moral tone and legalistic sense of right and wrong. From the very first shot of Estes’ film, in which a young, bulky Josh Peck is seen mercilessly beating up on a comparatively scrawny Rory Culkin, the concept of bullying is handled with a hyper-realism that borders on an unrelenting vulgarity reined in by Estes’ aforementioned morality, lending the film its poetic sense of timelessness, the beating on screen intimately inclusive of the viewer regardless of whether they were at one time the oppressor, the oppressed, or both. The way in which the film then unfolds is singularly tragic and grandly encompassing, each event in the film’s plot evolving out of an initial wrong, revealing the degenerative nature of emotional and physical violence on the individual as it begins to infect the larger group to which they belong, becoming a part of the very ecosystem of social interaction, a running body of water that flows through even the most demure and otherwise tenderhearted soul with a malice that proves impossible to suppress entirely, trickling off into its own isolated pockets of immoral wrongdoing. Like Anthony Burgess’ timeless parable on the meanness inherent to youth, Mean Creek is an utterly original story about violence among children, examining the brutal nature of adolescence as its begins to blossom into the moral trepidations of young adulthood, where maturity reigns in our baser impulses and urges, A Clockwork Orange meets small town Oregon.

Once the film starts to gain momentum after the initial instance of school yard bullying, the streak of cruelty evoked by the film’s title very quickly wends its way through its protagonists, infecting the film with a menace that is near ethereal, never a tangible facet of the script’s reality, but spiritually instilled in the very aura of the film’s thematic tone and locale. The creek within which the titular aggression takes place, or perhaps more accurately inevitably escapes, encroaching upon the relative tranquility of the Oregonian geography, becomes the point of no return, the brutalism unleashed in one act of aggressive retribution proves inescapable, shrouding its perpetrators, or faux jurors, with all of the guilt of the accused and summarily punished agitator. In essentially taking the law into their own hands, the film’s heroes are saddled with the morality of a world made of and unto themselves, their actions ringing with the authority of an emotional maturity as of yet out of their reach, leaving them in a precarious underworld of their own guilt and emotional immaturity. When the film’s legal sense of right and wrong is brought into question, its protagonists become delirious, their individual vendetta brought into question by the surrounding world of adult maturity and the governmental strictures of the law, their children’s court dissolved under the harsh light of police interrogation and the fallout attributed to being convicted and accused of premeditated homicide. In taking on a troupe of precocious children instead of regressive teenagers, Estes’ Burgess-esque script takes on a certain moral subtlety that Alex and his Droogs never reach, Mean Creek being centrally concerned with the morals of violence when perpetrated by those who lack the maturity to wield it, their actions against each other and themselves made more painful and damaging in their tacit acceptance of all of the guilt that goes along with the dawn of behavioral responsibility expected in young adulthood.

By the time the film’s poignantly tender conclusion rolls around, in which Rory Culkin’s character is left alone in a police interrogation cell to contemplate the repercussions of his and his brother’s actions in the killing that is the film’s narrative and thematic center piece, the viewer is in much the same place as Josh Peck’s now deceased victim. Unable to give voice to an inner turmoil originating in his own respective emotional immaturity, Peck’s character becomes socially isolated, forcing him into a silence that erupts in the incomprehensibility of violence, bringing on an Armageddon of his own maturity and a mutually assured self-destruction. Whether or not Estes’ surviving characters are able to reach the other side of the film’s estuary of adolescent violence is thusly beside the point, as the film is more obviously fascinated with the one character whose emotional progression towards maturity is cut short, both by his own transgressions as well as those made towards himself, ending his life in a cycle of vengeance masquerading as justice, the moral ambiguity of childhood giving rise to a skewed view of the legal system, crime and punishment rendered simplistically binary. Where Burgess was content to label his crew of adolescent miscreants as being merely young and foolish, their possibly more egregious acts of mugging and rape labeled as a mere phase that everyone grows out of once they reach adulthood, Estes takes a more nuanced and deftly articulated stance, arguing for the moral capabilities inherent in children, their respective emotional immaturity rendering them temporarily unable to wield it, resulting in school yard acts of crime and punishment that eventually sort themselves out in young adulthood’s emotionally mature capitulations to a legalistic sense of right and wrong. Thus, the utter incomprehensibility that arises from violence begets morality, and not the other way around, else the film’s creek would become a river, its currents stronger and more far reaching, infecting adulthood with the irresponsibility of childhood, Burgess’ adolescents run amok.

Jacob Aaron Estes’ film is an intriguing piece of contemporary American cinema, distinctively of the independent film circuit, allowing it the space to explore the young adult genre with tact and finesse. Mean Creek’s attentions to the subtleties of emotional immaturity are thus rendered with broad-brush strokes and a minute attention to detail, never surrendering to simplistic caricature or melodramatic manipulation, allowing the dissection of adolescent violence all of its menace and socially aware commentary and far reaching critique. While the film offers no solution for eradicating the violence of youth that it indicts, and perhaps, as Burgess previously prescribed, there is in fact no cure, Estes’ warmth and compassion for the children he illustrates is tastefully done, forgiving them their violent transgressions where Burgess might indirectly celebrate the very same. Like A Clockwork Orange, Mean Creek is a film that looks at violence among the young from the stance of social commentary, addressing an ailment with the eye of a physician diagnosing an ill with far reaching and potentially dangerous consequences. However, unlike Burgess’s parable, which ends before it even begins to get at the moral ambiguity that it only ever begins to describe, Estes’ film is primarily fascinated with the surrounding causes of an objective violence, his subjects the perpetrator’s themselves, their inner lives opened up to the turmoil of young adulthood, where crime and punishment becomes more readily comprehensible, the violence it often begets weighted with the morals of an emotional maturity that Estes’ characters earn by film’s end, Alex and his Droogs contrastingly falling into it by chance, Burgess’s novel comparatively amoral, Estes’ script serving as a fitting resolution to Clockwork’s ambiguity.

Mean Creek is available on Netflix Instant View, and is My Movies on Netflix: Recommendation of the Week.

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