Saturday, April 27, 2013
It is becoming more and more difficult to make a film about an American’s relationship to his own country. When I use the word “country” I mean the land itself, the specific tone and tenor of a place that doesn’t look or feel like any other. There is a documentary about the band Wilco called Ashes of American Flags in which the musicians talk about the small towns that are ignored by the highways the band travels on. The towns are part of a fading America that is disappearing only a little less quickly than the Polaroid film one band member uses to remember them, and within another generation they may feel impossibly far away. The new film Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols, is concerned with loss and change in a similar way. Mud is about many things, including crime, love, and the purity of young friendship. Central to its concerns are childhood and the permanence of one’s childhood home, both things that recede from us even as we live through them.
Mud takes place in the same Arkansas that was a character in Nichols’s previous Take Shelter and his earlier (unseen by me) Shotgun Stories. Seeing Mud a few days after another film not set in a major city (The Place Beyond the Pines) is a refreshing experience, and a reminder that vital filmmaking need not have a New York accent or a Los Angeles body. The lives of 14-year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) depend upon the river that passes by their Arkansas town. Ellis’s father Senior (Ray McKinnon) sells the fish he traps from the family’s houseboat in town, and the family is part of a shrinking community of river dwellers that also includes a recluse named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). If Senior and Ellis’s mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) decide to divorce then the houseboat will be lost, since it belongs to Mary Lee and state law allows for the destruction of anything on the river abandoned by its owner. The fate of Senior and Mary Lee’s marriage is tied to the fate of their son’s way of life. An exploration on the river leads Ellis and Neckbone the discovery of a boat trapped in a tree (a fine image of nature’s relationship to the people who depend upon it) and to a meeting with a odd character named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is making the boat his home. For the rest of the movie we learn more about Mud’s complicated history even as Ellis and Neckbone receive a lesson in the hard choices and unhappy outcomes of adult life.
Matthew McConaughey was supposed to be the next Great American Movie Star almost 20 years ago. That never quite panned out, but just by continuing to show up McConaughey has slowly revealed himself as a substantial talent. (I say that without even having seen Magic Mike.) If Mud were released later in the year then McConaughey’s performance would certainly be mentioned for awards; his Mud is a well-detailed portrait of an inveterate screw-up who’s also just learning some of the things that Ellis and Neckbone come to accept during the course of the film. Mud must also carry a good deal of symbolic weight; the boys initially see him as a swashbuckler and a vision of what growing up could be. McConaughey will be justly celebrated for this role, but Mud is always very much the story of Ellis and Neckbone. When the boys set out together for the first time there isn’t anything that seems impossible, but by the end of the film they come to realize both the permanence of their friendship and the fragility of everything around them. Mud’s tempestuous relationship with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) drives much of the plot and eventually brings a vengeful father (Joe Don Baker) and his gunmen into the boys’ lives. Yet even though sex, violence, and divorce lurk at the film’s edges, Mud has the quality of a great boys-book adventure. Ellis and Neckbone (both played with an unforced poise) are living the movie of their lives and it’s the details that will linger with both with them and with us. The kiss Ellis shares with an older girl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the outsized diving helmet of Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon), and the boys watching Mud wield a chainsaw while suspended from a tree are all given a wonderful and specific weight.
Mud ends outside an anonymous block of apartments, but of course it hasn’t ended for Ellis. We all come from rich, strange places that deserve to be remembered, but the joy of Mud is its celebration of the places we discover in ourselves.