Thursday, August 29, 2013
In the early 1930s, during a lengthy safari in Tanganyika Territory, Ernest Hemingway broke off a discussion of antelope hunting to provide a German expatriate with a disquisition on American literature from colonial times to the present. During this little lecture, included in his Green Hills of Africa, Hemingway made one of his most famous statements. "All American literature," he claims, "comes from one book by Mark Twain called Huckleberry Finn. If you read it you must stop where the Nigger Jim is stolen from the boys. That is the real end. The rest is just cheating. But it's the best book we have. All American writing comes from that. There was nothing before. There has been nothing as good since."
Jeff Nichols's exhilarating third movie, Mud, concerns two 14-year-old boys growing up in a small town beside the Mississippi in the director's native south central state of Arkansas, and it's impossible while watching it not to think about Huckleberry Finn and Hemingway's claim for its essential position in the experience of growing up close to the American landscape. It also brings to mind Hemingway's own detailed, tactile descriptions of fishing, sailing, hunting and living close to nature in the wild. There's another great novel about growing up, understanding and misunderstanding the world that Mud inevitably evokes. That's Great Expectations and Pip's relationship with fugitive convict Magwitch.
Nichols's Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who set off on an adventure down river to find an old boat, surrealistically stranded high in a tree on a deserted island. They come across a handsome, charismatic man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he too lays claim to the boat. When it transpires he's on the run for what he claims to be a justified homicide down in Texas, the boys enter into a pact to provide him with food and help him restore the craft as a means of escape. Ellis acts out of an innate sense of decency, sympathy and a need for friendship. Neckbone's motives are initially cynical and mercenary, though he gradually warms to the outsider.
In a deft piece of storytelling Nichols first links the tasks the boys undertake to their troubled family lives. Then he brings in Tom (Sam Shepard), the taciturn loner and former marine living on a houseboat across the river who has a key relationship to Mud. And finally their fates are dramatically involved with the strangers in town attracted by Mud: his mysterious girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and the posse of bounty hunters led by the patriarchal King (Joe Don Baker).
Through Ellis's wondering, romantic eyes we see the mighty river, which represents adventure, unknown dangers and the promise of a journey to a world elsewhere. He longs for love, friendship and security, but his parents' marriage is breaking up and their houseboat, from which his father conducts his business as hunter and fisherman, is threatened with confiscation. He envies the orphaned Neckbone's lovably wild uncle (Michael Shannon) who dives for clams wearing a homemade outfit that looks like Ned Kelly's improvised armour.
In 2012, Matthew McConaughey pulled off one of the most remarkable career transformations ever noted by a national audience. Before last year, the one time rom-com specialist was seen as a movie star, not an actor. The charming Texan with a pretty face and a knack for losing his shirt seemed content to be a Hollywood heartthrob—until he took four independent film roles all simultaneously within his wheelhouse and outside of it.
You see, these roles stretched the actor’s range in a way yet to be seen, but they weren’t a reach for the man by any means. In Killer Joe and Magic Mike, he was still overtly sexual, still sporting his trademark drawl, and still shirtless for most of his time on screen.
McConaughey got this close to an Oscar nomination while nabbing two Independent Spirit Award nods and a win for Magic Mike, and suddenly, the actor was hot. He found a spot in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and the lead in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014).
Perhaps even more pertinent, McConaughey is staring at another Oscar nomination—if not two—in 2013. He’s got his best shots with the yet-to-be-released Dallas Buyers Club and aforementioned Wolf of Wall Street, but he also gave an awards-worthy turn in this year’s indie smash, Mud.The point, though, is that McConaughey managed to rebrand himself as a talented A-list thespian without altering who he is inside: a charming Southern man who really doesn’t like wearing a shirt.
In Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas-set drama, McConaughey plays the titular Mud, a hobo discovered by two adventurous young boys on an island along the Mississippi. Unwashed and mysterious, the hobo offers the boys a trade: the boat he’s been living in for food from the inland town. He has nothing else to offer but his pistol and the shirt on his back, both possessions he clings to for luck and necessity. The shirt serves as protection from a second snake bite that would kill him. The pistol, well, that gets explained later on.
Set around the Mississippi River and told from the perspective of a fourteen-year-old protagonist, director Jeff Nichols’ third feature film, Mud, taps into a romantic image of a rustic alpha male: the man in the forest with the gun, the antiestablishmentarian, the vagabond who sleeps in a different spot every night. Nichols’ modest and meditative coming of age drama then chips away at it, the fibre of this mythical man’s strength broken down through his relationship with other people.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter the outlaw on an island, living in a small washed-up boat (very “up” — it’s metres above ground, jammed between trees) and his name is the film’s eponymous word. Matthew McConaughey, a fine choice to play a larger than life character whose simplistic mannerisms conceal inner complexities unraveled by changes of circumstance — especially given the actor’s current groove, riding the winds of a remarkable batch of career realigning films — is deep and soulful as Mud, a performance veneered with the kind of gritty masculinity easily mistaken for indifference or nonchalance.
Mud is on the run from the law, the crime he committed linked to a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is holed up in a shabby hotel and awaiting word on his location. Other, shadier forces are on the look-out for Mud, and Ellis acts as a carrier pigeon to pass messages between the compromised lovers. When Juniper asks what is motivating him to help them, the wide-eyed whipper snappers responds: “because ya’ll love each other.” But, Ellis’ father warns, “you can’t trust love.”
Audiences have recently been treated to a couple of great American films about men wrestling with emotions: Joe Carnahan’s The Grey and Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines. The former was under-appreciated because it’s packaged as a man versus wild B movie, which is the same reason it transcends multiplex mentality and emotionally challenges the kind of male characters it depicts, who would ordinarily not venture among latte-sipping art cinema crowds or willingly sit through two hours of something billed as an exploration of the human condition.
Mud is about the fragility of men, the craving to be loved — by a woman, by other men — and how easily that love is misplaced, taken away, cheated or lost. The kid may think it’s about ya-ll loving each other, but Eillis will discover Lady Love’s wand leaves lots of wishes to be desired, and many complications in the spells it conjures. If Mud were a more conventionally-minded film about separated lovers who reunite in a state of confetti down the steps bliss it would have become twee and life-affirming in ways Nichols has taken pains to avoid.
A spray of emotions that burst out of Ellis like an exploding valve on a pressure cooker emphasise how much the breaking of idealism can hurt, how much the film is about a failure of the myth to match the man, and how such disappointment, viewed through a pair of young and impressionable eyes, can hurt so profoundly. Ellis scolds Mud for being a liar, a phony and a cheat, but he is really confronting himself, angered by his own naivety and unsettled by glimpses of adult life reflected back at him.
The imperfections of the boy’s own ideas begin to hurt, from the flaws of his surrogate father to his experimentation with young love. Men’s relationship with women, despite the film’s dearth of female characters — and irrespective of those who may claim the film should have represented women more “fairly” or more dominantly, and thus misunderstand Nichols’ intention, or simply cannot get their heads past a proportional numbers game — is an important part of Mud’s psychological essence.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a 14-year-old coping with the slow disintegration of his parents’ marriage and its destabilizing effect on his own identity. Despite the sudden stirring of certain adolescent impulses when he’s around girls, Ellis still acts very much like a little boy. When he and his best pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) go scampering around their small town in search of trouble, they could be modern-day cousins to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, with a rickety motorboat substituted for a wooden raft. Their adventures eventually lead them to a secluded island where they discover an old boat lodged in the branches of a tree – a loaded visual symbol that suggests the boys have stumbled into a place that they don’t belong.
This misplaced vessel is only the second-weirdest thing they encounter on the island, however. First-place honors go to Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drawling, snaggle-toothed drifter whose easy manner betrays some sort of deep-seated melancholy. Dirty, disheveled and desperately in need of assistance despite his claims to self-sufficiency, Mud is at once a deeply pitiable and hopelessly romantic figure. Ellis gloms onto him; when the kid learns that Mud has travelled to the island to chase a girl, played by Reese Witherspoon, he duly projects his own lovelorn predicament onto the older man’s situation.
Sheridan, who previously starred in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, has a transparent quality that’s perfect for a young man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’s wonderful in his scenes with McConaughey, who contributes some expertly comic line readings yet stops short of making Mud into a backwoods caricature. McConaughey’s recent rebirth as a character actor in Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Bernie has been predicated on a skillful reconfiguring of his leading-man traits, and his performance here is very clever: It’s as if one of his golden-boy romcom heroes had been left out in the elements to rust.
The burgeoning relationship between these two isolated characters – one literally stranded, the other caught between childhood and a harder, more grown-up place – is interesting enough to sustain Mud throughout its inflated running time and various digressions, of which there are too many. Nichols has always been more eloquent with his camera placement than his dialogue, and Mud’s script has obvious flaws. A plot thread about a powerful big-city patriarch (Joe Don Baker) who’s enlisted some bounty hunters to hunt Mud down for a past transgression rehashes the futility-of-vengeance themes that Nichols distilled beautifully in Shotgun Stories, while that film’s star, Michael Shannon, feels wasted in an underwritten role as Neckbone’s ne’er-do-well, guitar-picking uncle. Nichols is trying to do too much all at once – to tell an emotional coming-of-age story while also meditating on the psychic toll of violence, while throwing in a dose of Christian imagery (a set of footprints on a beach) for spiritual ballast.