Saturday 10 November 2018

From the archive: "Mud"

It was one of the most notable sophomore step-ups in recent American film: Jeff Nichols, sometime protégé of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green, moving from the tentative poetics of 2007’s Shotgun Stories to 2011’s Take Shelter, a slowburn character study framed within a widescreen, apocalyptic horror movie, the two distinct halves of its personality adding up to a latter-day fable of astonishing resonance.

From the opening moments of Nichols’ third feature Mud, it’s clear we’re watching a further rescaling of the canvas. This latest is sunnier and starrier than its predecessor, bobbing along gently in the wake of that torrent of books, movies and other yarns about youngsters coming of age on riverbanks and the wrong side of the tracks. It floats, even glows, but without ever quite throwing off the feeling we’re watching a gifted filmmaker regurgitating at length the kind of mythology young Americans must be baptised in in certain Southern states.

Here are two such tykes – Ellis and Neckbone (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, credibly curious and combative) – setting out on an adventure through the swamplands of their native Arkansas, only to find a snaggletoothed convict (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out in a boat wedged halfway up a tree, and waiting for his true love Juniper (Reece Witherspoon) to fly back into his arms.

The fugitive gives his name as Mud – as in, “his name is…” – and others will come looking for him in due course: local law enforcement, a contingent of shotgun-packing bounty hunters clutching dead-or-alive flyers. The twisted paradise of the swamps – light, space, snakes in the grass – is about to be lost, we sense; innocence set to be snatched away.

The obvious reference would be Mark Twain’s Tom-and-Huck tales, but – as can be observed from the manner in which the characters sport Fugazi T-shirts and loiter in front of Piggly-Wiggly restaurants – Mud’s aim is to update the classical with more contemporary elements. (You could view it as a continuation of the cinema’s post-Katrina reengagement with the American South, coming in somewhere between the Oscar-feted The Help and last year’s indie curio Beasts of the Southern Wild.)

The result attains a certain resonance, albeit inevitably less than might be mined from a fable about the possible destruction of the planet. Nichols intends that this adventure will in some way determine these boys’ future relationships with the opposite sex, pushing them out as it will on a spectrum running from the homefront’s separated or separating guardians to the dirty, sweaty yet seemingly eternal affections of Mud and Juniper in the wilds.

Shotgun Stories was tied up with images of guns, and what they might represent; here, the fugitive’s offer of a pistol in return for help confers its own potency upon the boys. Clearly, this is a very American mode of storytelling, its fairytale folksiness – bound up with ideas of what it is to be a man – forming the flipside of Take Shelter’s doomy, mood-tapping paranoia. (Such wild mood swings means there’s something of Fox News about Nichols, which makes him a novelty in a coolly analytical, not to mention largely left-leaning indie scene.)

It’s also an eminently mainstream form of storytelling, which would explain the elevated marketing push for a film that premiered in competition in Cannes this time last year. For all their tattoos and tangled locks, these remain romcom regulars McConaughey and Witherspoon, placed centre stage as a vision of love’s young dream; it’s possible to imagine an even muddier, indier version of the same tale with Michael Shannon and Sarah Paulson (who take pointed cameos here) playing Mud and Juniper.

You sense Nichols is juggling his options, working out – like his young leads – who he’s going to be when he grows up: this time out he’s trying out the mantle of flyover-state crowdpleaser. For all Mud’s poetic flourishes, McConaughey still ends up shirtless come sundown, and the sight of his heartbroken loner tarring a hole in his stricken boat isn’t so far from the heroes in countless Nicholas Sparks adaptations, sanding down the hulls of their own grounded vessels.

Whereas in Take Shelter every image counted, Mud craves an audience’s indulgence: so enraptured is it by its chosen traditions – national, literary and cinematic – that it occasionally seems sluggish and meandering. Faced with 130 minutes’ worth of longueurs and aphorisms (“Life is work”, “Women are tough”, “You gotta know what’s worth keepin’, and what’s worth lettin’ go”), one wonders whether British cinemagoers wouldn’t rather revisit a brisk and breezy Children’s Film Foundation programmer.

(MovieMail, May 2013)

Mud screens on Channel 4 tonight at 12.15am.

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