Why ‘Mud’ Is the Best Southern Film in Years

Why 'Mud' Is the Best Southern Film in Years

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.

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Comments

Sylvia

What I noticed mostly about the movie was the central focus on love. The boy needs to believe in love. He is dissapointed by his parents divorce, and by the Mud and Juniper. Not only does he and his father tell each other they love each other, but he said it out loud to his older girlfriend who turned him down. The show of love also was seen by the Texan family, when the father got the phone call that his son died. The movie was very much about love, and how children need to believe in it, and apparently so do adults. the movie showed how Southern people are very sophisticated with their relationships despite misconceptions.

keith

It was a great movie, if you don’t think so you are full of crap and use words like "misogynist"… it’s a great movie says this Texan

Westley

Honestly, this was one of the worst movies I have ever seen. If you are reading this wondering if you should check it out, please don't…just saying I warned you

anni

if we completely ignore the role of women in this movie – what most male viewers and reviewers do anyway – it might be a good movie to some. otherwise it is misogynist crap.

VMac

We down here below the Mason-Dixon Line are all a'flutter about this fantastic film. Your review is extremely well written and I appreciate the lack of cultural and geographic ignorance when it comes to discussing "The South." As a resident of coastal NC who grew up/lived near where "Mud" was filmed, I celebrate films such as this (and Beasts of the Southern Wild) for their honesty and integrity. Thank you for your review. Well done. The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature salutes you!

serpico

At least someone on Indiewire speaks highly of this movie. Fricken Playlist for some reason discarded it. Then again, it's painful to listen to those guys discuss & interrupt a Terrence Malick film, so their opinion has little value for me.

Rene Broussard

Excuse me, but hello – BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD! Lest we forget!

abc

good review

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