Crime is one of the great story hooks that movies have to offer us, playing some key role in any number new releases on a regular basis. Blockbuster formula tends to gloss over criminal activity in favor of black-and-white dualities: Good prevails over evil. The aliens are vanquished. The Avengers assemble. The stories told outside Hollywood, however, dwell in ambiguities: “The Place Beyond the Pines” asks us to sympathize with a bank robber. “At Any Price,” opening this week, draws us into the motives of a corrupt farmer eventually complicit in murder.
Even in these movies, however, the moral compass is clearly defined. Their grey areas merely hint at the extent to which anti-heroes get prominent treatment in a pair of expressionistic crime dramas opening this week. In “Mud,” Matthew McConaughey stars as a killer on the run who befriends two boys that discover his hiding place. “Sun Don’t Shine,” the directorial debut of “Upstream Color” star Amy Seimetz, follows a pair of moody lovers fleeing authorities for a similar infringement, the nature of which is only revealed halfway through. In both cases, the actual outlaw behavior precedes the start of the story. The filmmakers thrust us into situations grounded in emotion first and context second, creating two of the more engaging, provocative American movies released so far this year.
In “Mud,” McConaughey emerges as the titular character with near-mythological proportions. Discovered by rascally teens Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lurking the forrest of an island on the Mississippi Delta, the scheming outlaw presents the boys with the allure of mystery and excitement that their otherwise isolated community fails to offer. Directed by Jeff Nichols, whose “Take Shelter” brilliantly used post-apocalyptic dread to represent psychological duress, “Mud” provides less allegorical power but still conveys a level of magic realism associated with its youth perspective on dark, adult themes just beyond their grasp.
An abandoned boat, inexplicably discovered in the treetops of Mud’s hideout that the man hopes to use for his escape with on-and-off-again partner Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), provides a striking image of storybook escapism at odds with cold fate that seems to await to Mud as his getaway plan begins to sound more and more like an impossible dream. Like “Stand By Me,” the movie to which “Mud” has been readily compared, Nichols’ plot plays off viewers’ imagination by limiting details to hearsay and implication. “Mud” manages to inhabit the perspective of its young protagonists while pointing to the tragedy beyond their grasp through fragments of exchanges and glances, in one case between the aforementioned lovers in their only scene together.
With similar cryptic finesse, “Sun Don’t Shine” also scatters its details while foregrounding tense exchanges and powerful imagery that let the emotions of its disturbed protagonists drive the exposition. In light of the troubled relationship history between Mud and Juniper that Nichols’ movie outlines, “Sun Don’t Shine” might be seen as a prequel of sorts, revolving around frantic couple Crystal (Kate Lyn Sheil) and Leo (Kentucker Audley) as they travel across the sweltering Florida landscape with a body in their trunk. From the first, startling moment, when Crystal’s head juts into the frame as she hyperventilates wildly in the midst of a spat with Leo and then melts into tears, their relationship is defined by fear. Seimetz, in one of the more memorable directorial debuts in recent memory, keeps the mystery of their tension thicker than the humidity bearing down on the characters in each scene.
Early on, it’s impossible to determine the culpability of their actions; instead, we’re strung along for bumpy ride thoroughly in tune with their psychological instability. A beautifully crafted parable for the abandoned feel of society along the grimy stretch of the Gulf Coast where it takes place, “Sun Don’t Shine” turns its lovers-on-the-lam plot into an accessible representation of universal frustrations.
By the end of the year, “Mud” and “Sun Don’t Shine” will form two-thirds of an abstract crime trilogy completed by David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” which premiered at Sundance in January and will screen at Cannes next month ahead of its summer release date. Lowery, the editor of Seimetz’s film, similarly traffics in mood ahead of a fairly routine plot that finds escaped convict Robert Muldoon (Casey Affleck) attempting to reunite with his wife (Rooney Mara) and their young child. Though Robert’s plight is never exactly logical — his desire to “rescue” his wife isn’t exactly shared by her by the time he breaks free — he’s never quite villainized. Like Mud, Robert sports an idealism that’s infectious. This is a form of movie magic that no pricey special effect can achieve: Without celebrating bad deeds, it lets us experience the fantasy of their liberating powers before harsh reality inevitably takes over.
Roadside Attractions opens “Mud” (film page) in several cities this Friday. Factory 25 releases “Sun Don’t Shine” (film page) in New York and on VOD on Friday. IFC Films releases “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (film page) in July.