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.