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Jeff Nichols's "Mud" and the Rural Revolution in American Film

Roadside Attractions

It was only in the late 1920s, just as sound came in, that Hollywood realized its audience had achieved a demographic balance: there were as many people living in the cities as in the country. Today it’s nearly five to one in favor of cities. That shift helps to account for the decrease in rural films. Sound meant talk, gunfire, and music, and those generally were urban attributes. The Western seems rural, but it is more interested in epic space and a moral stage than actual country life. Many of the classics of silent cinema had been set in isolated places: Griffith for example preferred the country. The WindSunrise, and The General are all rural films, though Sunrise has what was perhaps the most inspired and inspiring city yet put on an American screen.   

For decades, the country retreated from the American movie, with some notable exceptions: Elia Kazan loved the country, as witness East of EdenBaby Doll, and Wild River. Still, not many American movies feel as if they were made by people who have spent enough time in the country to respect it. But in the last few years, we have had a few films that show us parts of the hinterland as if they were there waiting to be discovered. I’m thinking of Winter’s Bone, by Debra Granik, set in the Ozarks, and shot in Missouri; Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which opposes city and countryside in abstract, metaphysical ways; The Place Beyond the Pines, which is set in Schenectady but depicts it as a place much affected by the forest and the hills. And now there is Mud, the third feature film by Jeff Nichols. This writer-director was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, and two of his films have been set in rural Arkansas—Shotgun Stories (2007) and now Mud—while Take Shelter ventured as far afield as LaGrange, Ohio (population just over 2,000).

Mud is not simply rural. It is a fable, as seen and felt by country children, from a time when their world was enclosed by immediate horizons. In this case, “Mud” is not just an emblem of wet earth; it is the name of a character from folklore, or the wishful romancing of kids. So it’s worth noting that when Mud the man first appears, it is as if by magic. Two boys have gone exploring an island in what I take to be the Arkansas River. They find a launch stuck up in a tree, with signs that someone may be living there. It’s time to go home, so they repair to their own boat pulled up on the shore. That boat is isolated. No one else is in sight. But then all of a sudden Mud is standing beside it, fishing.

Where did he come from? Who is he? Well, he’s Matthew McConaughey (born in Uvalde, Texas). He has ragged blond hair, a fine white shirt, plenty of tattoos, and a gun stuck in his belt. He has nail crosses on the heels of his boots. He treats the kids as natural companions. If they’re coming back, he wonders, could they bring him some food? As they become friends, he tells them stories about how he’s on the run, on account of killing a man who was messing with his girlfriend, Juniper, the woman he loves, tall and with long blonde hair, such a dream you don’t want to wake up.

Roadside Attractions
Tye Sheridan as Ellis, Matthew McConaughey as Mud, and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone.

Juniper, it turns out, is blonde, but all wrong in other respects. She’s Reese Witherspoon, from Louisiana, and famous for being five feet one and a half inches. She’s a treat to behold if you can overlook the evidence that she has been beaten up fairly regularly—for a reason: she is less than steadfast, true, and a dream. But Mud is a kid, emotionally no older than the two boys. He thinks that Juniper is coming for him, like a princess in a fairy tale, but he knows that the relatives of the man he killed will be coming, too. That’s why he’s hiding out. 

The boys are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and they are fabulous. This is a world where fourteen-year-olds can ride a motorbike or drive a motorboat without rebuke. They live in homes that are broken or close to snapping. No schools are in sight, and the kids roam on land and water as they like. Ellis is horny for a girlfriend (not that he knows what to do with her yet), in love with love and friendship, and easy meat for the amiable lion of Mud’s romancing. He is played by Tye Sheridan, who was one of the boys in The Tree of Life. As in that film, he acts with such naturalness that it's sometimes hard to believe a camera was there. As for Jacob Lofland, this is his first film but it won’t be his last. Together they are friends making up their adventure story as they go along, and one might think that they are going to be a challenge to McConaughey.

Not so. McConaughey will be forty-four later this year. (He’s old enough to be father to these kids.) He has made forty films already, and in a lot of them he seemed to be no more than a Southern ingénue, handsome but not strong on character, and easily overpowered by other actors. But a few years ago, something happened to him. He got married and lost a good deal of weight, so he looks older, leaner, and a lot more experienced. There is still a light of youth in his eyes, and he needs it in this movie; on occasion he looks more innocent or reckless than the boys. The fruits of this change in McConaughey have been Killer JoeThe PaperboyMagic Mike, and Mud. He has a big part in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, due at the end of the year, and I imagine that will restore him to an expensive business suit and a chic haircut. Take care. His new liberty has come from country moods and a wild, fresh-air imagination.

So, at its heart, this is a picture about two kids who come of age in a summer storm, raised by Mud. I’m afraid that Nichols has lost control at the end of Mud—just as he did at the close of Take Shelter. Visually, the mythic storm looming at the end of that film is more striking than anything in Mud, but it is also portentous, doomy, and a way out of a tricky human situation. We can foresee endings for Mud (this is a revenge story), but it is miscalculated. It settles for violent set-pieces and then a conclusion that seems too tidily aimed at the box office. The emotional logic in this story requires a dash of tragedy for its finale.

For at least three-quarters of the way, this is a fine film, and one that kids and parents could see together. The three males at its heart could not be improved upon. They look as if they had fun. Witherspoon is excellent, in another character suggesting her need to keep away from pink and legal blondeness. Witherspoon has a tough edge and you see it here along with candid glimpses of Juniper’s weakness. But she should do films like this, Freeway, and Election until she is ready to play Ma Barker or Lady Macbeth.

There are excellent performances from Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, and Sam Shepard does one of his better acting jobs. Michael Shannon is there again (he has been in all of Nichols’s films), but this is a vacation compared with his immensely troubled father figure in Take Shelter.

Jeff Nichols seems to me a rare and special director. Rural atmosphere is not his only interest; he is intent on family tensions and the effect they have on children. In Shotgun Stories, we meet three fierce adult brothers: Son, Boy, and Kid. In Mud, Ellis’s parents are not getting on well (though they are both appealing people) and Ellis faces the loss of his home, a floating trailer, really, docked on the river bank. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain have a deaf daughter and there are signs of mental disturbance in his family. One of the best moments in Mud is when Ellis breaks through the dream armor of Mud and realizes who he is and how much damage he can do.

None of these films went all the way for me, and although Take Shelter had a lot of good press, it grossed less than it cost. Mud, I suspect, will do much better, even though the film is now a year old: it played at Cannes in 2012. Why was it held up that long? Was there some feeling that, despite its many qualities, Mud might seem slow and old-fashioned to city audiences? I’d guess that the ending was calculated for box-office appeal, whereas I think the film should have been wilder and stranger. Mud talks a lot about magic, voodoo, and bad spirits, and that could have been developed. Cottonmouth snakes play quite a part in the story, and Nichols has a superstitious feeling for the water, the trees, and the nearness of natural darkness.

Shotgun Stories may still be Nichols's best work, and the one in which family pressure and a Gothic sense of revenge are wedded together. I’d guess that he wants to stay in Arkansas. But America hardly believes in the movies as a rural form now, and so the affinity with fable in Mud may need to move toward the epic narratives of Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. What about a remake of The Night of the Hunter, with Michael Shannon in the Robert Mitchum role? Or Morgan Freeman? It’s intriguing that Nichols has not yet had a leading black character in his work.