Thursday, May 9, 2013

Wild in the Country: Mud

Matthew McConaughey stars in Jeff Nichols' Mud

Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and the new Mud (which played at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but has only opened in theatres in the past few weeks), would have been called a “regional filmmaker” before 1989 or so, when “independent filmmaking” caught on as both shorthand for a movement and a marketing term. “Regional filmmaker,” a label that got stuck on directors as dissimilar as Richard Pearce (Heartland) and the late Eagle Pennell (The Whole Shootin’ Match), may have had its uses as a descriptive term for filmmakers working in parts of the country that weren’t often visited by film crews, but it was also a little condescending, based as it was on the assumption that any place outside Los Angeles or New York was the boondocks. (Being an independent filmmaker is more of a boast, since no one who’s ever been to a multiplex needs to be told what the indie filmmakers mean to be independent of.)

Still, it has a special resonance for someone like Nichols, who grew up in Little Rock, studied film in North Carolina, and whose early films came across as self-consciously, even ostentatiously about life as it’s lived far from the urban centers. I wasn’t as taken with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter as much as some critics were, and I wonder how much that might have to do with the fact that I grew up in Mississippi and don’t see anything especially exotic about working-poor guys living in Arkansas. Nichols has talent, but in Shotgun Stories especially, he also had a beginner’s clumsiness, and just enough pretentiousness leaks through his film’s plain, rough-hewn surfaces to let the viewer see that he’s a conscious artist, not just some lug with a camera who won the service of Michael Shannon in a poker game. This is a combination that speaks directly to the kinds of critics who get very excited when they have the rare chance to acclaim a movie as a work of “folk art.” Mud has its clumsy moments, too, but I like it much more than Nichols’ earlier films. Part of that has to do with its being more alive visually; it was shot by his usual cinematographer, Adam Stone, but the camera work is more active than before, sometimes circling the action as if Stone had been binging on classic De Palma. A lot of it has to do with Matthew McConaughey.

Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan in Mud
McConaughey plays the title role, and it tells you a lot about Nichols, about the white-trash plainness of his people and the literal-mindedness of his artistry, that a movie called Mud even has a title character. Mud has killed a man to defend the honor of his sweetheart, Juniper, and is holed up on an island in Southeast Arkansas, hiding from the law and from the vengeful father of the dead man. (The father is played by the great Southern actor Joe Don Baker, once a towering pillar of redneck righteousness as Buford Pusser in the drive-in perennial Walking Tall. He’s grown more gaunt and sagging-faced with age, but his deep, booming voice is still fully intact.) Mud isn’t the hero; he’s an object of wonder to a pair of fifteen-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). The boys are stranded in a dead town with nothing to do, and Ellis, the more openly sensitive one, has a disintegrating family life to escape from, so they row a boat out to the island in search of adventure. There’s a boat that’s somehow gotten itself lodged high in the branches of a tree: maybe the flood waters rise really high sometimes, or maybe Nichols is a big fan of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In any case, the boys have come to claim it, only to find that the charismatic stranger has been living inside it.

It wasn’t long ago at all that McConaughey seemed to be the living embodiment of what “independent” film artists are supposed to be independent of, and of the dangers that getting too close to “the industry” can act upon them like Kryptonite. I don’t know that I have many friends who didn’t fall in love with McConaughey the first time they saw him, as the oddly charming sleazeball who still likes to hang out with high school kids in Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. (Explaining his fondness for high school girls, he drawls that he keeps getting older, but “they” meaning the latest crop “stay the same age.” Come to think of it, I don’t know how many friends I have who won’t do an impression of him delivering that line at the drop of a hat.) But most of the big roles in big movies that he did in the wake of that small comic turn (A Time to Kill, Amistad, Contact) showed an actor bring pushed to the front of the line before he was ready, and the most memorable work he did in the ‘aughts was in tabloid stories and half-bakedin more than once sense interviews.

Reese Witherspoon as Juniper, in Mud
David Thomson has suggested that McConaughey’s recent comeback (in Bernie, Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and now Mud) must have something to do with reconnecting with his Southern roots, and maybe his marriage. These are nice ideas, especially the thought that looking into the eyes of Richard Linklater (who directed Bernie) again inspired McConaughey to feel some sense of shame about all those rom-coms he’d been wasting himself on. One problem with it is that I personally would date McConaughey’s renewed commitment to the underrated entertainment The Lincoln Lawyer, in which his character had a trace of a drawl and a lineage connecting him to a great many Dixie-fried mouthpieces and lovable scoundrels, but in a very L. A. setting. Maybe McConaughey, like many actors, just does his best work when he has decent material to work with, and getting a reminder of what good material tastes like inspired him to hold out for some more of it.

Whatever brought McConaughey to this role, it’s hard to imagine anyone else filling it out as well. The boys, feeling the pressures of adult life eating into their territory, go looking for freedom and adventure and find Mud, who seems to embody those qualities even while reduced to hiding in a swamp and asking stray children if they could scrounge up something for him to eat. Sun-baked and tattooed, with cross-shaped nails in his boot heels (so that his footprints will serve to ward off evil) and an image of a snake on his chest (to remind him not to get bitten by the crafty devils), he’s everything that a boy on the verge of adolescence might idolize. Rash, impulsively violent, reluctant to face up to responsibility and dreamily untethered to reality, he’s also everything that the adults have had to shuck off to try to make their way in the world. He’s a killer, but as difficult to judge as a puppy with a dead bird in its mouth. The performance is a work of art, and it enables you, for once, to watch a Nichols movie without being constantly aware than art is what the director is reaching for. (Nichols’ other movies took their tone from doomy, heavy-spirited lead characters played by the ever-intense Michael Shannon. Shannon appears here in a loose, funny supporting role, as Neckbone’s parental surrogate and aspiring ladies’ man, a part that Nichols might have written for him as a thank-you for past services rendered.)

Mud is a romantic outlaw, and it’s the romantic part that Ellis responds to. Ellis’ parents are breaking up, and in his anger and confusion, he briefly attracts the attention of a pretty older girl whose confusion, insecurity, and drive to experiment with different guys are perceived by Ellis as the fickleness of a heartless tease. Ellis is eager to believe in the purity of Mud’s love and to act as a go-between for him and Juniper (played by a deglamorized, damn near reborn Reese Witherspoon). Juniper, who is mostly glimpsed from a distance, has a distressed air, appropriate to a Juliet whose Romeo is in hiding with a price on his head. But she also has bruises on her face, and Mud may think he had good reason to put them there, even as he believes that they can put their problems behind them and sail off into a clear future together.

Ray McKinnon in Mud
At one point, Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon), who’s the kind of man who can say “You know I love you?” in a way that makes the person on the receiving end feel less loved than guilty, goes into a tirade, blaming Mom (Sarah Paulson) for selfishly ruining his life, and by that time, the movie has gone deep enough into Ellis’ bewildered point of view that a viewer might fear that it has Dad’s back on this. But then the mother whacks him upside the head and when she tells him how appalled she is that he would blame her for his own weakness, it rings true. The father is like a lot of Southern men whose lives haven’t turned out as well as they wanted and are looking to blame their failures on whoever helped them once, but not enough. But he’s not a bad guy, and however his feelings get in the way of his efforts to express it, he does love his son. Mud isn’t about the perfidy of women or about the brutality of men but about the inadequacy of grown-ups as role models; happily, it extends sympathy even to the failures, instead of demonizing or caricaturing them to pander to the kids in the audience. (The only character the director doesn’t extend sympathy to is the dead man’s father, whose efforts to enact blood vengeance inevitably lead him to grief.)

Mud builds to an action climax that’s surprisingly well-executed but is a little off-key; it doesn’t fit in with the rest of the film. And all the boom and thunder count for less in the end than Ellis’ final grin, signaling that he may be down in the love wars, but he hasn’t counted himself out yet. If there’s anything disappointing about Mud, it’s that it grows more predictable, instead of less, in its concluding scenes. The violent showdown is the most conventional thing about this movie, which could have expanded on Mud’s superstitious views and surreal fantasies to become ever wilder and stranger. But maybe the fact that stars of Ghosts of Girlfriends Past and This Means War could give the performances they give here is all the wildness and strangeness than anyone needs from a night at the movies.

Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

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