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Film Review: Mud

Mud (2012; Directed by Jeff Nichols)

Jeff Nichols is the indie-film auteur of the New Dirty South, which is evident in a weaker effort such as Mud just as clearly as in more indelible, fantastically-tinged statements such as Take Shelter and Midnight Special. Nichols’ camera takes in the stubborn decay of the American South with an austere and intimate realism, but injects bursts of the wondrous, the implausible, the merest thumbnail sketch of tantalizing escapism that, when pursued, leads inevitably back into haunting metaphors for the American condition of the moment. In Take Shelter, this took the form of Michael Shannon’s besieged provider’s horrifying visions, which in an unforgettable concluding scene become terrifyingly real. In Midnight Special, the mysterious light-beam powers of a young boy bring a futuristic imagining of human utopia to the run-down strips of the Gulf Coast.

In Mud, this flash of the sublime manifests as a boat wedged into the upper branches of a tree on an isolated island in the Mississippi River. This suspended boat, this image of rural folk-art magical realism, is found by two teenaged boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who speculate that it was deposited after a recent flood. However it gained its arboreal perch, the boat becomes a playground for their adolescent fantasies, even after it turns out to have an adult squatter tenant. This man, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), asks them to bring him food, then gradually inculcates the boys into his ever-widening plans for concealment and eventual escape, which burrow deeper into lies even as they inch towards the truth.

Mud claims to be waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to meet him on the island, at which point they will escape the family of bounty hunters pursuing him (Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks are the main father-son duo) and make a new life together. The romantic bent of Mud’s tale to the boys is well-calculated to appeal to Ellis, budding into puberty more actively than Neckbone and roughing up high school seniors in order to appeal to pretty, older local girl May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). His own coming-of-age disillusionment and painful realizations about the tough complexities of relationships with the opposite sex is mirrored by his growing awareness that Mud and Juniper may not be the ideal star-crossed lovers that he’s been led to believe they are.

Set in the vicinity of DeWitt, Arkansas, Mud may be Little Rock native Nichols’ most geographically personal film, suffused with an unvarnished fondness for the tattered pride of a river-bound way of life that he also notes is atrophying and vanishing. It’s also the closest he’s ventured to the southern gothic genre, with haunted, solitary men, bruised but tantalizing women, sinister crime-underworld demons, and a climactic burst of gunplay. Like southern gothic texts, it’s mostly concerned with damaged white Southerners scrabbling for an ever-shrinking piece of the pie, diminishing themselves and their society in the process. Unlike southern gothic texts, it fails to trace contemporary Southern society’s wasting disease back to the original sin of the slaveholding antebellum civilization and the blood-spattered white supremacist Confederacy erected (and posthumously preserved) to shield Southerners from a reckoning atonement. Race was conspicuously absent as a subtext in Nichols’ films, at least until he made Loving last year, which is overtly concerned with a key instance of civil rights progress.

Jeff Nichols customarily employs genre elements nimbly and cleverly, as mechanisms to expand his storytelling and symbolism rather than to fence them in with conventions. Mud‘s weakness is that the genre elements, namely those of the coming-of-age tale and the slow-burn crime thriller, begin to take over, becoming the defacto raison d’être instead of a tool to suggest truer meanings. McConaughey should take over this movie that bears his character’s name, and had it come a little later in the resurgent period of his career known as the McConaissance, perhaps he would have. But he seems tentative and a little unsure as Mud, unwilling or unable to summon the rogue energy that this backwoods fugitive charmer seems to demand, the masculine flame that attracts the boys and Ellis in particular (Sheridan shows particular promise here, which he has yet to really fulfill as he grows into adulthood).

Sam Shephard – as Ellis’ cross-river neighbour, a mysterious former Marine sniper and father figure to Mud – does more of that lifting, straining imperceptively to bestow the film’s putative anti-hero with an attractive badass aura (his mere presence seems to be more than half the point, intertextually connecting Nichols’ work by associative suggestion to Shephard’s acclaimed playwriting and its influential depiction of a constricting rural America). On the female side of the acting ledger, Witherspoon, mostly holed up and threatened in a motel room, isn’t given enough to do, nor is the generally superb Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ mom, who is separating from his father (Ray McKinnon). Michael Shannon, who has been in all of Nichols’ films, plays Neckbone’s scavenger-diver uncle and guardian, spends half of his scenes with an almost comically oversized diving helmet sitting on his shoulders, resembling a clunky robot from a 1950s sci-fi B-movie.

Bizarre, seemingly unreal touches like this dot Mud‘s portrait of a weary current South. Nichols (also the film’s screenwriter) combines such heightened details with romance, intrigue, and adventure, or at least their deluded suggestion. But his heart and soul, as with all of his films, is in the worn-out grind of quotidian Southern life, the hazy sweat of the toil of low-key struggle and survival. Mud dwells on the depiction of that reality with the ambition of art but the intermittent result of tedium. How odd, that this more superficially realist film has considerably less metaphorical heft than the director’s less strictly realistic films. Yet how perfectly understandable as well.

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