Tuesday, September 17, 2013

FI: Mud

US, 2012
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols

Last seen on this blog with the family feud saga Shotgun Stories, writer-director Jeff Nichols continues his chronicles of Southern masculinity with Mud, a coming-of-age tale set against the Mississippi River in southeastern Arkansas. Mud centers on two teenage boys, Eliis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (previously-unknown local Jacob Lofland), who discover a boat stuck up in a tree on a small island in the river. They want to reclaim the boat, but someone else is already using it: Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious fugitive who wants to fix the boat so he can be ready to flee once his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) turns up. The boys bring Mud food and parts to help fix the boat, in exchange for Mud's life lessons (paired with more than a little mumbo-jumbo) and a promise that he'll give them his gun when the job is done.

Mud seems like a mythic figure, almost an imaginary friend come to life with his cross-heeled shoes, his wolf's eye–infused shirt, and his magic tattoos, and all of this is of a piece with Nichols's vision of boyhood in the South as a sort of epic tale. Adam Stone's restless, roving steadicam, coupled with his grand vistas of the Mississippi's tidelands, aids this effect. Nichols himself has said he was influenced by Tom Sawyer, and there's certainly a little bit of that here. But so much of Mud is about that time in a child's life when he learns that anything can change, that the things he counts on may be ephemeral. Ellis's dad (Ray McKinnon) and mom (Sarah Paulson) are perilously close to a divorce that would cause the family to lose the houseboat Ellis grew up on. He meets a girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) who seems to blow hot and cold towards him. Even Mud's father figure, Ellis's neighbor Tom (Sam Shepard, looking haggard), contradicts Mud's tall tales. Nothing is certain, and learning that fact is a huge part of growing up.

McConaughey continues his strong run of late—see Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe (no, really, see them. They're great.)—subtly tweaking his lackadaisical, laid-back persona to give Mud just the right balance of kindness and potential menace. The two young leads are also terrific, with very natural screen presences and little hint of artifice. If I have any issue with the film, it's that I worry about its portrayal of female characters, who seem to be mystifying, emotional creatures that men try and fail to possess. But I can forgive this as I think it's more the attitude of the film's teen protagonist—and, even more so, of the sort of patriarchal Southern culture into which he was born—rather than a perspective the film and/or filmmaker take as truth. Instead, the film seems to be critical of this kind of masculinity even as it laments it as part a way of life that's slowly being swallowed by a future for which it was not prepared. This mix of nostalgia, youthful idealism, and a depiction of an authentic-feeling culture rarely seen on film make Mud a worthwhile experience.

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