The 1980s was quite a prolific decade for actor Kurt Russell. Sprinkled between the genre classics he made with director John Carpenter, the actor tried his hand at a wide variety of roles, from shifty used car salesman in the comedy Used Cars (1980) to a nuclear power plant worker in the docudrama Silkwood (1983) to a police detective in the neo-noir Tequila Sunrise (1988). Often forgotten during this busy decade is a nifty little thriller called The Mean Season (1985). Based on the bestselling 1982 novel In the Heat of the Summer by John Katzenbach, this well-executed film acts as the cinematic equivalent of an engrossing page turner.
Set in Miami during the hot, late summer months, the film opens with an urgent brassy score by the great Lalo Schifrin that plays over shots of stormy skies juxtaposed with the busy printing presses of the Miami Journal, foreshadowing how both will play a prominent role later on. Malcolm Anderson (Kurt Russell) is a veteran crime reporter that has just come back from hiatus/job hunting in Colorado. He’s burnt out, lacking both ambition and drive. He wants a change of pace and threatens to quite… again. But before he can bring it up, Bill Nolan (Richard Masur), his editor, assigns him to cover the murder of a young woman that has been shot in the head.
The crime scene sequence speaks volumes about Malcolm’s character. He’s covered the beat long enough to be on friendly terms with homicide detective Ray Martinez (Andy Garcia) but not his partner Phil Wilson (Richard Bradford). He also knows how to get the guy who found the body to open up and talk then has the decency not to use the man’s name in the article. Malcolm is also tactful and understanding with the mother of the murder victim, listening to the woman’s reminisces about her child while still getting what he needs for the article. This is in contrast to Andy Porter (Joe Pantoliano), the crime photographer who shadows Malcolm on his assignments and has no problem taking a picture of the grieving parent during a particularly vulnerable moment. This scene is important because it establishes that Malcolm is good at what he does and he is a decent person so we like and identify with him.
Malcolm finally confronts Bill about his desire to quit in a scene between veteran character actor Richard Masur and Russell. Bill tells Malcolm, “You haven’t been at this long enough to be as burned out as you like to think you are.” Malcolm feels like he’s seen and done it all but still hasn’t found his Watergate yet – the dream of all ambitious investigative reporters. Malcolm sums it up best when he tells Bill, “I don’t want to see my name in the paper next to pictures of dead bodies anymore.” The editor counters, “Now we’re not the manufacturer, we retail. News gets made somewhere else, we just sell it.” It’s a nice scene that is well-played by both actors as their characters touch on the nature of ethics in reporting the news. How far are they willing to go to get a story that makes their career? Malcolm is about to find out as he gets a phone call from the man (Richard Jordan) that killed the teenage girl. He admires Malcolm’s writing and wants the reporter to be his mouthpiece as he plans to kill again.
Bill is practically salivating at the possibilities while Malcolm’s ambition kicks in as he realizes that he’s found his Watergate. However, as the murders continue, Malcolm finds himself getting more involved in the story until he’s as much a part of it as the killer, which puts his life and that of his girlfriend (Mariel Hemingway) in danger.
While the set-up and plot of The Mean Season are nothing special – the reporter who gets in way over his head – both are executed well enough that you don’t mind and this is due in large part to the engaging performances of the talented cast that do their best to sell the material. Kurt Russell certainly comes across as a believable newsman. He’s got the lingo down and seems to know his way around the newsroom and the beat that Malcolm covers. The actor does a nice job of conveying his character’s transition from someone reporting on the news to the one making it. He also manages to get a chance to show off some of his action chops in an exciting bit where Malcolm races across town to find his girlfriend before the killer does. His frantic, desperate race is intense because the actor knows how to sell it, running full tilt over several blocks like a man possessed, and because we know more than he does. We know just how much danger his girlfriend is in.
Mariel Hemingway is good in the thankless girlfriend role. She and Russell have good chemistry together. They make a nice couple together and her character ends up acting as the voice of reason when Malcolm gets too involved. Hemingway does her best to avoid the damsel in distress stereotype but it is pretty easy to figure out how it’s all going to go down. She is part of a solid supporting cast that includes Andy Garcia as the dedicated cop that cares and Richard Bradford (The Untouchables) as his older, more experienced partner who thinks that Malcolm is a parasite. The aforementioned Richard Masur (The Thing) is also memorable as the opportunistic editor who just cares about selling papers. The great William Smith (Darker than Amber) has a memorable bit part as a pivotal witness that helps Malcolm and the cops track down the killer. He has only one scene with a decent amount of expositional dialogue to convey but he nails it.
Director Phillip Borsos (The Grey Fox) also does a nice job orchestrating the cat and mouse game between Malcolm and the killer thanks to the smartly written screenplay by Leon Piedmont. They manage to hit all the right notes and fulfill all the right conventions of the thriller genre – the grudgingly helpful cops, the ambitious reporter, the sociopathic killer, and so on – and stir it all up. Borsos employs no-nonsense direction like a seasoned studio pro, which lets the actors do their thing. I also like how he conveys a sense of place with the sweaty, summer weather, coupled with the impending hurricane that is almost tangible. It all comes to a head at the exciting and atmospheric climax when Malcolm confronts the killer in the Everglades.
John Katzenbach was a veteran crime reporter who based his debut novel In the Heat of the Summer on years of experiences and that of his colleagues. Producer David Foster, a journalism graduate, had been looking for a good screenplay about reporters for years. He came across the manuscript for Katzenbach’s novel and was impressed by it. He met with the author and they talked about how to accurately convey the life of a newspaper reporter on film.
In April 1984, Borsos and his crew arrived at the Miami Herald offices to study a typical day in the newsroom and on that day Christopher Bernard Wilder, suspected of kidnapping and murdering several young women, shot himself as the police closed in. The resulting flurry of activity at the Herald helped Borsos create a realistic newsroom atmosphere in his film. Katzenbach urged Kurt Russell to hang out with his fellow reporters in preparation for the film. To that end, Russell and Joe Pantoliano accompanied a reporter and a photographer from the newspaper to the scene of a grisly double murder in North Miami. Much like in the film, the actor found cameras were trained on him and later saw footage of himself on the evening news. In addition, Richard Masur spent days and night son the Herald’s city desk.
Borsos’ previous film The Grey Fox (1982) did not make a profit and so to pay off his debts he agreed to direct The Mean Season. Unfortunately, he had creative differences with Foster over the tone of the film. According to Borsos, he wanted the film to look “somewhat stylized and slightly unreal, more what you would call a 1950’s film-noir type of picture.” In contrast, Foster wanted a more realistic-looking film as Borsos said, “Mr. Foster’s vision was more of action-packed thriller instead of a character-thriller.” It also didn’t help that the director resented the producer’s constant presence on the set. The newsroom scenes were actually shot at the Miami Herald late at night with several staff members used as consultants and extras. Russell and two fellow actors used three real newsroom desks that were outfitted with authentic-looking notepads, books, dictionaries and computer printouts. In addition, Katzenbach was frequently present during filming and acted as a consultant.
When The Mean Season was released it received mixed reviews from critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin felt that the film “has a brisk pace and a lot of momentum. It also has a few more surprises than the material needed, since Mr. Borsos, who for the most part works in a tense, streamlined style, likes red herrings.” The Washington Post’s Rita Kempley wrote, “Overall the film seems a little flat, a little stale … Director Philip Borsos' style is too dogged to transform Mean Season into a true thriller, though it serves well as a message movie on what news is fit to print.” The Globe and Mail’s Jay Scott felt that The Mean Season was two films in one: “Still, the two halves add up to a slickly effective and sometimes thought-provoking whole, a mystery that isn't quite Klute and that certainly isn't Witness, but that is swifter than nine-tenths of the contestants in the sparsely run race to entertain adults without insulting them.” Newsweek’s Jack Kroll wrote, “This movie has the weather of Body Heat, the moral stance of Absence of Malice and the perverse plot-angle of Tightrope. It's also not as good as any of these.” In his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kevin Thomas praised Russell’s performance: “The Mean Season depicts with conviction and economy how Russell is transformed by covering the serial killings. Russell, in turn, excels in retaining our sympathy as he becomes caught up in his assignment.”
The Mean Season is an entertaining film that falters a little bit at the end with a clichéd “twist” that sees Malcolm suddenly transform into an action hero but Russell does his best to make it work. At times, it feels like there are two kinds of films competing – the character-driven thriller that Borsos wanted to make and the action-packed thrill machine that Foster envisioned. The result is a sometimes uneven effort. Not every film has to try and reinvent the wheel by offering some novel take on the genre. There’s something to be said for a thriller that has nothing more on its mind then to entertain and tell a good story and that’s something The Mean Season delivers on both counts.
Gross, Jane. “An Actor Explores the Fourth Estate.” The New York Times. February 10, 1985.
Johnson, Brian D. “An Eye for Magic Realism.” Maclean’s. February 25, 1985.
Maslin, Janet. “At the Movies.” The New York Times. February 1, 1985.