Beyond Good & Evil

Two films that take a nuanced view of villainy

click to enlarge AXES OF EVIL: The line separating the bullies - from the bullied is nearly invisible in Mean Creek. - SANDRA JOHNSON
AXES OF EVIL: The line separating the bullies from the bullied is nearly invisible in Mean Creek.

'My name is George," says the chubby kid panning his digital camera around the inner sanctum of his bedroom, "and this is the inside of my mind." George is just one of a half-dozen or so teens and pre-teens that we meet in Mean Creek but, while certainly not the hero of this film, he's the character upon whom the plot turns. George is of particular interest because, to put it bluntly, he's a bully — that most reviled and two-dimensional of movie stereotypes — but Mean Creek makes a point of confronting us with the fact that he's also, incredibly enough, a human being. Mean Creek is one of two new films opening this week that, while otherwise very different from one another, both offer surprisingly nuanced and sympathetic looks at characters usually reduced in the movies (as in life) to stock types and even villains. A teen bully becomes a figure of comic-tragic realness in the rural American landscape of Mean Creek, while the Danish import The Inheritance shows us the man within a different sort of monster — a wealthy and seemingly ruthless industrialist who lays off hundreds of workers and alienates his family in order to save his business. Both films, each in its own way, wind up echoing that old humanist credo that everybody has his reasons — which means that, even with all the unsavory activity taking place in Mean Creek and The Inheritance, you won't find either film pointing a finger at an out-and-out villain.

The line separating the bullies from the bullied is nearly invisible in Mean Creek, a coming-of-age tale that starts out a little like an After-School Special but eventually suggests a view of human existence as an endless emotional/psychological food chain where everyone gets his 15 minutes (or more) as both eaten and eater. That may sound like tough stuff, but even if Mean Creek skirts the edges of teenage Theatre of Cruelty a la Kids and River's Edge, the film ultimately eschews nihilism for neutrality, and even holds out for a hint of compassion. There's some pretty bad behavior on display here, for sure, but nothing to freak out about; even the worst moments in this basically gentle little film have a purpose.

The movie tells of a prank gone wrong, a trip down river with a canoe full of kids plotting revenge on big bully George (Josh Peck) for beating up one of their circle. Everyone reveals a bit more of themselves than expected during the trip — most of all George, who turns out to be spoiled, obnoxious and annoying but not nearly the monster everyone was expecting — but, in the tradition of all good noir tragedies, the plan has been put into motion and it's too late to stop it. We smell that revenge scheme going sour well before it actually does, and, sure enough, bad things do come crashing down on everyone's heads, right about the time that a friendly game of truth or dare turns uncomfortable, then ugly, and then deadly.

Mean Creek generally avoids heavy-handed moralizing, but there's no mistaking it as a morality tale, with the weight of the characters' actions taking on a terrible mass that eventually colors and crushes everything in its path. It's a noisy process but, during the last act, after the crisis comes, the film becomes almost unbearably silent and meditative, with the kids looking inward as they reflect on their actions. Inordinate amounts of time are spent with the characters staring off into the distance or fixated on a snail oozing a trail of slime, and then Mean Creek slams us with an ending that contains not closure but a couple of hard choices (as well as a couple of overly melodramatic shortcuts).

Threading noir motifs through a minimalist coming-of-age narrative and giving even the least of his characters unexpected weight and dignity, writer-director Jacob Estes has cobbled together what is basically a very promising first feature, reassembling some tried and true elements into an interesting new shape. The soundtrack of alternative white-boy rock sometimes threatens to drown out the movie's subtleties, but, on the whole, Mean Creek is a welcome reminder that a lot can still be done with a few people in a boat floating down the river, Without a Paddle notwithstanding.

Half a world from the Oregon waterways of Mean Creek, there's someone else up a creek and without a paddle in the Danish drama The Inheritance. Christoffer (Ulrich Thomsen) is the kind of character we often get in movies, but almost always in conveniently simplified and demonized form — a rich businessman who does whatever he has to do to survive. Director Per Fly (my nomination for best name of the year) doesn't shy away from showing us the less than pleasant effects of the decisions carried out by his lead character, but he also presents us with a portrait of Christoffer as an imperfect but essentially earnest individual trying to do the right thing, in his way, and tortured by the possibility that he's messing it all up.

The Inheritance charts Christoffer's course over a period of roughly five years, as his father's death triggers his being dragged away from a relatively carefree life as a small-time restaurateur and guilt-tripped into taking over the family's gigantic steel factory. Christoffer isn't that different from all too many of us: he's someone who falls into a life's work that he doesn't really want — he just lives his lies on a grander scale. We watch him anguish and eventually bite the bullet as he's sucked into the world of big business, forced to make decisions that cause pain, firing close friends and faithful longtime employees for the "greater good" of his debt-ridden company. Eventually his marriage cracks, chaos and personal crisis looms, and even when a light at the end of the tunnel appears, it's a light illuminating a man whose personality and very life have been turned into something alien to himself.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but the film's relentless focus on someone exchanging the life he loves for the one he feels is demanded of him sometimes makes The Inheritance seem like it's angling to be seen as a Scandinavian Godfather (minus all the sexy violence). The film is ultimately too slight to make good on that connection, however, and even though director Fly gives us a complex not-quite-hero in Christoffer and imbues his movie with a cool, Nordic reserve, it doesn't completely disguise some of the more soap-opera-ish turns of the tale. As tragedies about men who gain the world but lose their souls go, The Inheritance isn't exactly Shakespeare — heck, it's not even Mean Creek — but it does manage to make a fully fleshed character out of someone we usually see on the screen as a simple cartoon. And if that character sometimes seems on the verge of jumping up on a table and, like another tortured Dane of yore, breaking into an anguished recitation of "To be or not to be," it's all in a day's work.

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