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Mean Season, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"An Imperfect but Entertaining Thriller"
4 stars

Despite some logic loopholes and contrivances, this makes for quite the entertaining time.

While The Mean Season isn't perfect (it has a couple of major flaws), it's still an effective and commendable piece of work -- a film that, while not totally honest in following through on the intriguing issues it raises, manages to unnerve and bring us unbearably close to the diseased mind of a maniac. For those willing to take this one-hundred-and-four-minute filmgoing venture, it makes for a potent cinematic cocktail. What it's about fries your nerves; and what it means is the stuff of nightmares.

A serial killer is at work again, folks -- this time in Miami, where hurricane season is under way (hence the film's title). (The film is an adaptation of John Katzenbach's best-seller In the Heat of the Summer, which was too dense in detail and way too languid in its prose for my taste.) Kurt Russell stars as Miami Herald reporter Malcolm Anderson, who has just returned from a trip to Greeley, Colorado, and plans to resign and relocate there to become managing editor of its weekly paper. An eight-year veteran of the notorious Miami crime beat, he's burned out and spiritually exhausted; as he tells it to his editor (Richard Masur, who co-starred with Russell in the 1982 remake of The Thing), "I don't want to see my name in the newspaper next to pictures of dead bodies anymore". Greeley is perhaps too neatly conceived as a haven of sanity -- the big-city professional dreaming of a tranquil life in the mountains is old hat -- but thanks to Russell's immensely skillful and natural performance we find ourselves siding with Malcolm from his very first scene.

Of course, as things go in Movieland, the emergence of dangerous conflict arises to knock the protagonist's initial plans all to hell; and the conflict here is brought on by an anonymous caller's phone call to Malcolm at the paper and his confession that he's the one responsible for the recent killing of a teenage girl. Proof of this claim is soon substantiated (a note with the words 'Number One' is found in the deceased's pocket), and Malcolm finds himself in a most unusual professional situation: that of a reporter materially involved in the story he's covering. The killer -- a baby-face, middle-age man named Alan Delour (brilliantly played by the late Richard Jordan) -- promises to offer up four more victims by week's end (Malcolm: "You already know who they are?"; Alan: "I know what they are.") As we discover to our horror, Alan is committing these acts not out of contempt for the victims, but for a society which he feels has failed to duly recognize him:

"Have you ever noticed that the older you get, the smaller you become? When I was a little kid, the block we lived on was the whole world to me. I knew everybody. I was significant -- even important."

(and after he's claimed victims three and four):

"When I left, the house was covered in blood. I walked right down the street. I...I was invisible. Nobody seemed to notice me. Nobody cared."

As critic David Denby in New York magazine astutely noted, The Mean Season is a parable of American ambition: Alan in his quest to be deemed noteworthy in the eyes of the public; and Malcolm in realizing his dream of finally having his "Watergate". Understandably, when Malcolm starts getting all the attention -- appearing in Time magazine and on the national news (he's even told by his editor that he's "entering Pulitzer territory") -- Alan is outraged. Alan has somehow missed out on the joys of life, too concerned with peoples' perceptions of him; his self-consumed mind-set has ironically isolated him from the very society he craves acceptance into. You can easily envision him as a loving family man, a caring father, a faithful husband, and a responsible, civic-minded, upstanding member of his community but, aside from being mentally ill, he's too meek and emotionally insecure to coincide well with the opposite sex; he's the type a lot of women would easily prey upon to manipulate and take advantage of, and employers would view as an unassertive pushover.

Akin to the serial killer Francis Dollarhyde in Michael Mann's Manhunter, Alan Delour comes off as a sad and pathetic overgrown child, and Richard Jordan is the perfect actor to play him. Best remembered as Michael J. Fox's lecherous uncle in The Secret of My Success and the sly National Security Advisor in The Hunt for Red October, Jordan is so focused and uninhibited that he transforms himself into this incredibly interesting human monster with astonishing ease. Everything he does is unexpected -- you feel he hasn't read the next page in the script -- and his willingness to go emotionally naked in front of the camera draws us to him, enabling us to understand, if not altogether sympathize, with his inner turmoil. He's scary as hell, riveting and helplessly mesmerizing; when Jordan is on screen, it's impossible to avert your eyes, as much as you may very well want to. And he's able to suggest something I've never been convinced of before in a film villain: a man whose brain is rotting right before our very eyes.

When the film is concentrating on the Malcolm/Alan relationship, it's masterful stuff. (It also helps that we never see Alan's face until the halfway mark, which adds to his mysteriousness). But when the topic of journalistic ethics plays into the equation, things get a bit clunky. On one hand, only a fool would believe that any reporter would refuse to partake as a killer's "conduit to the public", so justifying this position is wisely left alone. Would Alan's killing stop if Malcolm refused to print his story? I think not. He would have just called someone else, as he threatens to do when Malcolm is (for a split second, anyway) hesitant. On the other hand, though, when (in a neat plot twist) Malcolm winds up the victim of a cruel hoax cooked up by Alan to bring him down a few notches, his editor tells him "you're going to take a public whipping like nobody's ever seen before", there's no follow-through to it. Conveniently, the fourth victim is discovered soon thereafter, the issue is glided over, and, in doing so, screenwriter Leon Piedmont violates one of the cardinal rules of drama: instead of resolving a conflict, he dissolves it, removing the threat and implications behind it.

It also doesn't help that the talented Mariel Hemingway has been cast in the dubious role of Malcolm's worrywart girlfriend, Christine. She serves as a stand-in for the audience as the supposed voice of reason ("You just got off the phone from a maniac. Do you two ever argue?") and as a mouthpiece for Piedmont in voicing Malcolm's questionable motives and actions ("Are you reporting the news, or participating in it?", when the answer is clearly both). It's a virtually unplayable character, and Hemingway (while game), who's left to display nothing more than shrillness, eyebrows, and silicone, comes off as she's been (to borrow that cowboy saying) "thrown off hard and put up wet". (Let's face it: When girlfriends or wives of film heroes in a thriller are secondary to the story, the majority of the lot are going to be preyed upon or kidnapped to spruce things up. Remember Marisa Tomei's terribly conceived role as ex-cop James Spader's psychiatrist/love interest in the abysmal The Watcher?)

What else is wrong? Well, the scenes in the last third run a more predictable route, where the economy of the build-up is betrayed by the implausibility of the follow-through. When fearing for Christine's life, Malcolm tries to race to her rescue, is hampered by a rising draw bridge, gets out of his car, runs up one platform, jumps to the next, slides down unhurt, and still manages to beat the cops to the destination. And the final confrontation, where the hunter and hunted finally have their inevitable go-round, isn't bad in execution but abysmal in its preparation -- we know an intruder is in Malcolm's house before he does. (Tsk, tsk.) Worst of all are two bottom-basement false scares: one with Christine in the shower; and the other with Malcolm sitting in his car with a hand reaching toward him from the back seat (both accompanied by Lalo Schifrin's equally unsubtle score). Reportedly, the film's studio, Orion Pictures, exerted pressure on the filmmakers to include these disposables to spruce things up, and the effect is so off-putting they temporarily jar you right out of the film -- you may have stumbled into the wrong theater or popped the wrong DVD in the player, for all you know.

Still, as nagging and glaring as these flaws are, The Mean Season still manages to grip throughout. The director, Phillip Boros, whose previous feature was the beautiful Canadian character study The Grey Fox (with Richard Farnsworth), is nothing short of masterful at managing to work up a doom-laden atmospheric texture and a lingering sense of dread considering that very little in the way of bloody carnage is actually shown. Through Frank Tidy's suggestive cinematography (the shots of raging storm clouds are simply staggering) and a willingness to pull back from the horrific goings-on, Boros is able to suggest and imply much more disturbingly the utter senselessness of the murders. In a superbly staged scene, the police and Malcolm arrive at the murder site of the fourth victim, and we see, as they first do, the covered body some twenty to thirty yards away. That's as close a look at the body as we get, and Boros cannily centers on a crying baby, the dead woman's surviving child, instead; her cries cut right to the bone, accentuating, again, the senselessness of murder. Not one murder is actually shown, only the aftermath, and it's much more disturbing this way; we're forced to use our minds to recreate the killings, which is certainly unpleasant yet essential here in discovering and processing the same information Malcolm is forced to.

While a more showy director could have probably tightened the tension a bit more, it wouldn't have been necessary because, until the final ten minutes or so, Malcolm is never in any immediate danger, so placing him in any suggestive danger would have been cheap (which is why those false-scare moments are so deplorable). Boros admirably serves the material with an unfussy, professional style that never calls attention to itself; there's very little in the way of showy camerabatics to distract and distance you from the immediacy of the narrative. And Boros never betrays the Malcolm/Alan relationship by putting the hunt for Alan center stage; the hunt is believably conducted by the police, and it's on a secondary level, to where we never see the cops following up on leads -- just their set-in frustration over the endless dead ends. Malcolm doesn't try to foolishly track Alan on his own, either; he's scared enough as it is, and it's this kind of plausibility that helps offset the high implausibility factor that seeps in later on. (After the film's release, Boros should have been promoted to the top echelon of American directors, but The Mean Season was poorly received, and his next film was the heavy-handed G-rated Christmas film One Magic Christmas. He died just a few years later.)

The Mean Season isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but it's worth a look even for those not particularly enamored of this particular sub-genre. In addition to Kurt Russell and Richard Jordan, there's first-rate acting by a first-rate cast, with Andy Garcia matching up well with Richard Bradford as the investigating cops (they'd re-team five years later for the dazzling crime thriller Internal Affairs). The location shooting in and around Miami is interesting, as is the production design, with a sight that brought me up short in our computer-dominated age: in the Miami Herald press room, the typewriters outnumber the computers five to one. And while the sight of Malcolm being endlessly hounded by his own reporter colleagues doesn't have the same kick as attorney John Travolta and associates being saddled with those staggering bills in A Civil Action, it's still neat to see the tables turned on someone whose profession most of us have come to despise. Also, keep in mind that The Mean Season is more character-oriented than plot-driven. Sure, the character driving the story is a full-fledged sociopath, but you take what you can get nowadays, and between Alan Delour and some terminally dull nice guy like Tobey McGuire in the spirit-less Spider-Man earmarking the action, I'll opt for the sicko nutbag each and every time.

A first-rate cast in a good thriller despite a couple of serious flaws.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=6525&reviewer=327
originally posted: 12/23/02 14:02:26
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User Comments

12/14/02 Charles Tatum Underrated little noir 4 stars
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  15-Feb-1985 (R)



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