With grosses approaching $20 million and still going strong, the breakout box-office success of Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” seems to have surprised many people. But reading The Wrap’s report that the film “has played very strongly in the South” surprised me not at all, because “Mud” is the best Southern film I’ve seen in ages.
The following definition of that crucial term is my own. There are many films set in the South and many shot there. But the kind of Southern film I’m talking about is one that engages and reflects aspects of Southern culture that Southerners recognize as true and meaningful to their own experience and sense of the region.
I’ve been thinking about this cinematic species ever since I was a teenager, and in seeing “Mud” I was again conscious of watching a film with a kind of double vision. My view as a film critic (one who now lives in New York City, incidentally) saw it as a clever, complex and expertly mounted coming-of-age-cum-suspense film. I’m pretty sure I would have liked it a great deal if I hailed from Spokane.
My view as a native Southerner, though, added value to what the critic saw: Because the film enraptured me with people, places, themes and events very resonant with my own upbringing, I took it personally in a way that escorted me past merely liking it a great deal. I started saying to friends, “I love this film.”
For Southerners, such identification is common when it comes to the work of literary greats like Faulkner and Welty and more recent writers such as Pat Conroy and Alan Gurganus. In a film like “Mud,” made with an obvious awareness of the South’s literary traditions, there are attractions on every possible level of meaning — from the mundane to the mythic.
What could be more mundane, after all, than the ground beneath your feet: that dirt, or if you’re near the water (as this film always is), that mud? If Southern lit is known for being rooted in a “sense of place,” the locale evoked by Nichols couldn’t be more specific: It’s a stretch of Arkansas river where the protagonist, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), lives in a ramshackle residence with his quarrelsome parents.
As always in Southern lit, this place isn’t just geographic or anthropological fact; because it connotes “home” and identity, it is suffused with history and feeling. For Ellis, when the film opens, that home is a locus of crisis because it is threatened from both without and within: Even as the River Authority is poised to condemn the house, his parents seem to be slip-sliding toward breakup.Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two reasons “Mud” grabbed me immediately. They are boys who’re most at home outdoors, on the river. Their world isn’t one of home video, Xboxes and iPads but of dirt bikes (Neckbone built his own) and outboard motorboats. I don’t run across boys like this in New York, or for that matter in Southern suburbia these days. But I knew them growing up, and I still encounter their like when I venture down to coastal North Carolina.
One day on an island in the Mississippi, Ellis and Neck (Sheridan and Lofland give note-perfect performances as the teen river rats) come upon a battered cabin cruiser that a flood has left surreally stranded in a tree. It is inhabited by the aptly named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, who’s terrific), a gnarly local ne’er-do-well who’s now in desperate straits. For the love of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the object of his (mostly unrequited) affections since childhood, he killed a Texas lout who beat her up, and now the cops are hunting for him and the Texan’s family are aiming to ice him.
Ellis and Neck’s decision to help Mud is what sets the plot’s gears turning, and they turn expertly and inexorably. But much of what accounts for the film’s particular poetry comes from things along the plot’s edges, the textures of the human and physical world that Nichols conjures: the mercurial moods of the river in changing light; the lore these characters have imbibed from the land (Mud knows why the Cherokee puts snake skins on the bellies of pregnant women); the look of the rugged riverside buildings, battered mobile homes and low-rent strip malls that comprise their world.
In the narrative’s depths, meanwhile, are hints of age-old regional mythologies. Ellis’ ardent efforts to reunite Mud with Juniper (whose hands are tattooed with Shakespearean/Keatsian nightingales) may obviously deflect a desire to forestall the collapse of his parents’ marriage, but more distantly it also echoes a traditional Southern adhesion to the codes of chivalry and courtly love: Even if the boy can’t “save” the fair lady whose chevalier he sets out be, the endeavor initiates him into manhood.
Appropriately, the mythology associated with Ellis (whose name suggests Ulysses, another voyager seeking to reclaim his home) is trumped by one associated with Mud (whose name of course evokes Adam, primordial man), a myth that’s always more powerful and profound in the South. For the arc of Mud’s story is one of sin and redemption. He has killed (and who knows what else) and, though he imagines otherwise, he cannot achieve an easy salvation by grabbing Juniper and running.
On the contrary, he must undergo trials and opt decisively for self-sacrifice over safety (he twice risks his skin to save Ellis’) in order to die (at least apparently) and then, after a kind of de facto baptism/cleansing, be resurrected. (Spoiler alert: Like the New Testament, the film has a happy ending.)
Flannery O’Connor would love this story, I think, as would Faulkner and Mark Twain. Yet Southerners, like other moviegoers, don’t tend to massively embrace any film simply because of its high-lit resonances. That’s why native Arkansan Nichols made an interesting wager in also embracing the propulsive genre mechanics of another big Southern author, John Grisham, as a way of broadening the film’s appeal.
Applaud that wager or not, it has resulted in a very adroit piece of commercial storytelling that is also, in its cultural and emotional heart, quintessentially Southern.