December 15, 2005

The Significance of Nature in 'Mean Creek'

Aside from Kill Bill, my favorite film of 2004 is Mean Creek. Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Jacob Aaron Estes, Mean Creek is brilliant on many levels. It’s a realistic exploration into the psyches of six very different teenagers. It’s a visually beautiful work that reminds us of the innocence of childhood and the preciousness of life. And it’s a poignant story that offers great insight into the human heart. So if you haven’t seen it, I encourage you to do so. And for those who have (and only for those who have), I offer the following essay on the film.

Mean Creek contains numerous images and sounds of nature. While the kids are on the boat, the camera often stops and focuses on wild animals, as well as plants and the creek itself. And during a couple scenes early in the film, we can’t help but notice the noise of insects buzzing around in the background. Why does the film focus on nature as it does? What’s significant about it?

It seems to me that we can understand the significance of nature in Mean Creek if we view the film as a loss of innocence story, one that parallels the story of the Fall of Man. The film clearly seems to be such a story, as up until the kids agree to cover up George’s death, Sam, Rocky, Clyde, and Millie are innocent, void of moral wrong. We never see them hurt others, but we do see them being hurt. For example, Sam is beat up by George and we learn that Clyde, too, was once belted by George with a baseball bat. We never see Rocky hurt anyone else and Millie comes across as being almost angelic. Even Marty is a victim, as he is bullied by his brother and, aside from taking a few verbal jabs at Clyde, only takes out his frustrations on a glass bottle. When the kids decide to conceal George’s death, however, they lose their innocence. For this is the first evil act they commit; plotting revenge on George seemed harmless enough and even his death was completely accidental.

Viewed in this light, a number of parallels between Mean Creek and the story of the Fall of Man begin to emerge, and the significance of nature in the movie becomes clear.

In the Genesis account, humanity’s relationship with nature changes once Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit and, thus, lose their innocence. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve live in peace with nature. Once they sin, however, the very earth becomes cursed and humans, for the first time ever, become meat-eaters. Thus, a relationship of harmony is replaced with one of hostility.

Like Adam and Eve, once the kids in Mean Creek lose their innocence, their relationship with nature is changed. For example, although none of the characters express hostility towards nature before they lose their innocence, Millie angrily kills a snail with a pocketknife when George is being buried. It also seems significant that, while the first part of the film primarily takes place under sunlight, reminding us of nature’s presence, the second half of the film primarily takes place at night, with the only lights being artificial ones. And perhaps most importantly, almost all of the film’s images and sounds of nature occur before the kids lose their innocence. Once George is buried, the camera and mic rarely leaves the kids.

Given how the kids’ relationship with nature changes when they lose their innocence and given the parallels between Mean Creek and Genesis, it follows that the movie’s sights and sounds of nature emphasize the kids' initial oneness with nature. In so doing, the film further likens the kids to pre-fallen humans and, thus, underscores their innocence.

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