The serial killer in The Mean Season—a brilliant thriller framing a complex moral tale—exerts an eerie fascination on the audience. For more than half the film the viewer does not see his face, only the back of his head as he places his telephone calls to reporter Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) and gives him the details of his latest atrocities. The killer (Richard Jordan), who speaks in a rational, almost friendly voice, has chosen Anderson as a perverse partner in crime: he tells Anderson where the bodies are, Anderson beats the rest of the reporters, and the killer believes that Anderson is making him a star. But the tables turn: Anderson himself becomes the bigger celebrity, and the killer, who regarded the reporter as a friend, turns his rage onto Anderson’s girlfriend, Christine (Mariel Hemingway).
Based in part on the experiences of a Miami crime reporter, The Mean Season has a richly textured surface which combines documentary realism with a dark-hued thriller style. Director Phillip Borsos displays a spellbinding talent for building suspense. Helped by Leon Piedmont’s tight, multilayered script, Borsos has made a movie that reaches as much for the conscience as it does for the jugular. He succeeds in making the audience come to know the killer’s warped psychology so well that it too becomes as intrigued as Anderson is.
The Mean Season also explores the appeal of tabloid journalism and the love-hate relationship that both news-
paper readers and movie audiences have with the disgusting and the terrifying. At the same time, the film raises the question of whether journalism can sometimes create news simply in the act of reporting it. As a horrified Christine says, “It’s turned into a collaboration.”
Anderson, burnt out and on the verge of leaving the paper and moving to Colorado with Christine, cannot pass up this one final assignment. When the killer makes him his ally—because he likes the way Anderson writes—the reporter feels flattered. As well, he is driven by one last chance for fame. Both the reporter and the killer have two things in common—the need for recognition and, disturbingly, each other. The killer, angry and feeling betrayed, tells the reporter, “You’re getting more important than me”—and then kidnaps Christine.
Although superficially a living cliché of the reporter, rumpled and unshaven, Russell subtly reveals the warring emotions behind the newspaperman’s moral dilemma. The performance is restrained and internalized, drawing the viewer past the man’s facade. And as the killer, Jordan is phenomenally effective: he creates character through voice alone for much of the film. When the audience finally does see him, he changes his baby-faced features from the childlike to the psychotic in an instant, and—in a transformation that is the most unsettling aspect of the film—the audience ultimately feels strangely sympathetic toward him. During the plot’s final, stunning reversals Borsos leads right into the core of a nightmare. In The Mean Season he has made a movie without mercy. -LAWRENCE O’TOOLE
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