Several scenes into the action of the overlooked 2004 indie drama Mean Creek—a film replete with the quiet, lurking chaos that gurgles beneath the placid mundaneness of small-town boys’ lives—there is a moment that crystallizes the banal violence that pulsates throughout the entire film. Three of the older boys—Clyde (Ryan Kelley), Marty (Scott Mechlowicz), and Rocky (Trevor Morgan)—sit in a car near a roaring waterfall, drinking and smoking joints, discussing the details of the imminent prank they plan to enact on a schoolyard bully, George (a shockingly obscene, post-All That Josh Peck). Marty, the devastatingly haunted, unspoken ringleader of the boys, tries to force Clyde, the prototypically scrawnier and more reticent of the group, to smoke marijuana, despite Clyde’s insistence that he abhors marijuana. The silent tension of the scene persists, with Marty goading the resigned but steadfast Clyde, while Rocky uncomfortably eyes them from the passenger seat. “Don’t be a faggot,” Marty insists, to which Clyde is clearly, heart-wrenchingly offended in a way that transcends what we assume would be the typical teenage boy response to such a remark. The boys—Clyde in the backseat, Marty at the wheel, and Rocky, as stated, in the passenger seat—stare at one other with varying degrees of burdensome emotions—Clyde, dejectedly, at Marty with a broken ire; Marty at Clyde with a daring, fierce uncertainty; and Rocky, intermittently passing glances at the two, conveying trepidation and a certain distinct resentment. Marty relents, the tension disquietingly “breaks,” and the unsteady pace of the film continues, leaving the viewer with a sense of ambivalence and insecurity that carries through the entirety of the film.
It is this quiet tension, this ineffable yet defining brutality, that gives Mean Creek’s aesthetic its particular unnerving edge, making it stand out from other adolescent dramas (especially those focusing almost exclusively on adolescent males). In the title sequence of the film, this subliminal violence is visually and metaphorically hinted at, as the film opens from the point of view of someone submerged, presumably drowning, subjected to the mercurial currents—at once beautiful and suffocating. Mean Creek is a film that intricately conveys the aesthetics of adolescent male violence as it brutally intersects with adolescent male desire—at times erogenous desire, but often (and more poignantly) desire to be loved and wanted in any way—and as such it emerges as a film that slowly unhinges and leaves the viewer discombobulated.
At its bare bones, the film is one of cruelty, confusion and revenge: after George, a repeat-offender schoolyard bully, viciously pummels Sam (Rory Culkin)—younger brother of Rocky—for touching his camera during one of his film-diaries, Rocky, Clyde, and Marty plot to pull a cruel prank on George that will render him naked and helpless on a boating trip. Deceptively rudimentary, the film—directed by the tremendously gifted though relatively unknown Jacob Aaron Estes—quickly complicates this programmatic setup of spiteful boys pitted against one another by discreetly delving into the boys’ fragile psyches and defense mechanisms. Sam is awkward and kind, eager to preserve the bond with his doting but jocular brother; George is dichotomously delicate and ruthless, keenly aware of the impositions of his physical appearance and learning disability; Clyde is somber and sensitive, silently hostile; Rocky is trapped in the social etiquette he perceives as necessary in his friendship with alpha male Marty, but is indefatigably protective and introspective; Marty is cripplingly immured by his own persona, unwilling to let his vulnerability dictate him, subliminally traumatized by his father’s suicide.
The boys’ mimetic desire for one another and their multifarious relationship with violence—both imposed and voluntary—enliven the film’s action, and when the frenetic climax and agonizing denouement unfold, the viewer is left to contemplate how cruelly and subversively violence is aestheticized and internalized by young men. In deconstructing Mean Creek as a thesis on cyclical male brutality and the allure of violence given no other coping mechanism, George and Marty emerge as tragic martyrs. George, who aspires to be a filmmaker—and this is fascinatingly used by Estes as a method of mediating the action of the film and adding another dimension to the boys’ misdirected desire—is archetypally fated and designed, and his outcome satisfies a certain implicit bloodlust throbbing throughout the film. Marty, contrastingly, is predestined to succumb to the violence of his circumstances—cultivated and demonstrated by the men in his life—and his demise is an excruciating culmination of his inability to articulate and comprehend his desire and to eradicate the pernicious savagery that has been embedded in his psyche. Mean Creek, then, stands bleakly as a film where there are only victims and martyrs: there are no tragic heroes, and there is no veneration for the satiation of bloodlust. The violence that has been inherited, lionized, and aestheticized is no longer a source of valiance for young men.