The Mean Season Review
Being a reporter must be a moral and ethical minefield. Balancing the needs of the story, the responsibility to report the news, and trying to decide where to draw the line between the relevant facts and unneeded personal details can’t be easy. The people always want to know far more than they need to, editors always want everything, and it’s left to the reporters to get it, sometimes whether they like it or not. Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) is just one of those reporters. Tired of putting his name on story after story of misery and tragedy he wants out, he’s been offered a job editing a nice quiet local paper in Colorado, where he can write stories about lighter, happier things. But Malcolm’s talents are rather well appreciated, and he’s given a story he just can’t pass up, not from his editor though, he’s been hand picked by a murderer to be his personal storyteller.
After Malcolm writes what he thought would be his last story, about the murder of a young girl on the outskirts of Miami, he receives a phone call. A man, claiming to be the killer, tells him he’s a big fan of Malcolm’s writing, he seems to have a talent for extracting the details, and getting close to the story. In reality Malcolm has rather an advantage, he’s been writing about horrors in this town for years, he plays softball with the police, he can get close because he has contacts that will put him right in the centre of a tragedy. This isn’t something he’s proud of, in reality he hasn’t written a story in some time that he’s proud to put his name on. His talents and contacts are undeniable though, which is why he has been picked to spread the word- this will not be the last murder. The police should expect four more, and although he refuses to give a motive he makes it very clear, he has a definite plan.
Now Malcolm is thrown into the story on which he was reporting, the phone calls he receives from the killer are the police’s only lead, but as hard as he tries to lull the killer into dropping his guard, and revealing a vital clue, seem to leave him with only meaningless details – possibly even downright lies. Not that it matters, whatever the killer tells him makes the front pages, there’s never been a story like it, a reporter actually in the story he’s reporting on – and a mass murdering sociopath no less – there’s talk that this could end up being the biggest story of the year, Pulitzer Prize material even. The big question however, is who is really writing the stories, it may be Anderson’s name on the byline but with every story that passes it seems like he’s becoming more a puppet for the killer.
There’s a hint of noble intention behind The Mean Season, while at its heart it is a simple thriller, someone – most likely the author of the original novel – wanted to ask questions about the role of the media. This is by far the most interesting aspect of the story, but sadly it isn’t a thoroughly, or efficiently, explored area of the script. As we see Anderson become a victim of the industry he’s worked in for so long there is a sense of poetic justice, watching a man that has imposed himself upon so many people’s grief and invaded so many people’s privacy, have a camera thrown just as callously in his own face – and often by people he would call friends – seems like just desserts. The problem with it however, is that Anderson was never really that happy doing it to other people, in fact his want to stop doing just that is what caused him to hand in his notice. It doesn’t feel so much a turning of the tables as a victimisation, our hero isn’t learning a lesson, he already knew full well just how unpleasant being the subject of such attention could be. Also the morals of following the story are quickly brushed aside, in a single scene Anderson and his editor sit down with the papers owners and lawyers to discuss whether they should run the story, and it comes down to simply whether of not they would be legally liable if anything goes wrong. When it is asked if it’s the right thing to do to be the spokesman for a sociopath, which they all know is clearly furthering his own agenda, they simply conclude, if they don’t do it he’ll just call someone else. Admittedly that is a rather damning portrayal of the attitudes of the media, but it’s one that lasts only seconds before being ignored for the rest of the film.
Sadly, as that aspect of the film falls so flat, there really isn’t much for it to fall back on. The thriller storyline is rather trite – even 20 years ago this wouldn’t have been the height of originality - we all know just how it’s going to end and the twists are very clearly signposted. Any attempts at action scenes are miserably realised, whoever cast the S.W.A.T. teams clearly went for the cheapest option as you’ll see more realism in a playground full of five year olds storming a climbing frame, and as the police and Anderson rush out to the everglades for their final confrontation it feels like they’re only there to remove the film from the dreary newspaper copy rooms for ten minutes. The one thing that makes the film watchable is the performance of our killer, he’s remarkably cold and somewhat unnerving, worryingly believable as a man with more of a care for infamy than for human life. Cunningly his telephone voice is provided by Ted Levine (a trick he was later called to provide again in Roadkill), and his face is never shown as he makes the calls, meaning we could have seen him numerous times throughout the film before he is revealed. This adds a further creepy edge as the killer finds out more and more details of Anderson’s life, you never really know how close Anderson is to him.
Overall it’s a disappointing film rather than an awful one, with many intelligent aspects brushed aside in favour of thrills that never manage to be thrilling and twists that are remarkably straightforward. The actors do the best they can with the joint performance of the killer carrying the film, but I’ve always found Russell more entertaining when he’s having fun with a role, his stony face here not as convincing or entertaining as less serious films such as Big Trouble in Little China or Escape from New York. Although the supporting cast includes both Joe Pantoliano and Andy Garcia, they too are rather fresh faced and lack any real gravitas, so he blame really has to fall with director Phillip Borsos, and it’s not much of a surprise it was years before he made another film.
The Mean Season has been presented by MGM in anamorphic widescreen, but there seems to be some confusion over the film’s original ratio. IMDB lists it as 2.35:1, but it is transferred here at 1.85:1, and some further web scouring only presented reviews of the American disc – also at 1.85:1 – claiming that it was indeed the original ratio, but there seems to be no solid evidence to support that, it may simply have been assumed. It’s not often that studios transfer a movie in the wrong widescreen ratio, but then it’s not often that IMDB is incorrect either. There are no obvious signs of cropping, the titles for instance don’t hang off the side of the screen, and the frame never feels cramped, if I had to guess I would say the ratio is correct, but there’s no way to know for sure. It may even be a case that the film was first made at 2.35:1 and then changed by the director at a later date – as was recently the case with The Recruit. Issues of the ratio aside the transfer still isn’t the most stunning, the film used a largely neutral palette but even so it feels rather washed out, with even reds looking rather dusky and there is certainly a lack of sharpness to the image. I’d like to be able to blame it on the films age, but I’ve seen much older films transferred much more crisply, but it is possible it would be difficult to source high quality materials to transfer the film from, but the occasional slight vertical judder of the film does imply that little care went into its presentation here.
Presented in its original Dolby Stereo The Mean Season doesn’t sound particularly mean on DVD. The film’s title refers to the fact that it takes place in Florida’s hurricane season, and when the storms hit toward the end of the film the sound remarkably lack-lustre. There’s little in the way of bass present, you can imagine a modern film with the same setting taking every opportunity to make atmospheric use of the surround and sub channels, but there is nothing so impressive here. Dialogue is clear, and always feels centred despite the lack of a centre channel, and there doesn’t seem to have been any degradation of the original mix, it just wasn’t very strong to begin with.
The disc is completely bare, bereft of even a trailer. Or for that matter any text on the menu screens, even the film’s title is absent.
A disappointing film is offered up by MGM on a barren disc, giving you no real reason to take a chance on it. Sometimes it’s difficult to weight the pros and cons of MGM’s back catalogue releases, the cheaper price leaves you wanting for extras, but in this case it doesn’t really matter, as there isn’t a special edition special enough to save the film. The disc feels like there was no effort put into it, leaving The Mean Season a release for completists only.