No doubt it's because I'm from the South that I'm particularly sensitive to that strain of Hollywood moviemaking that is the Southern movie. If a film is set in an RV park where four-wheel drive vehicles up on blocks stand along busted swing sets and go-carts, if it employs characters who skillfully spit Skoal at distances of no fewer than three feet, if there is an abundance of kudzu, then you can bet it's a film with which I'll have little tolerance.
Films about and set in the South have been around since the early history of cinema—see D.W. Griffith's troubling The Birth of a Nation (1915) as one popular example. But the commonly held notion of what the South should look and sound like on film seemed to solidify itself in our nation's movie-going consciousness with Deliverance (1972). It's a very fine film in its own right, but one which immortalized the South as a contested space, banjo-picking inbreds versus Pabst Blue Ribbon swilling macho men (see wetsuit-vest-wearing Burt Reynolds poised with bow and arrow for a singular example).
For his latest film, Mud, director Jeff Nichols takes us south to Arkansas, where the humid Southern environs are littered with customary signifiers like Piggly Wigglys and girls with two first names. Yet Nichols's achievement with his latest film—his third following the excellent Take Shelter (2011) and Shotgun Stories (2007), both worth space atop your Netflix queue—is that he transcends the clichés. He manages to transform this familiar milieu into something that splits the difference between genuinely menacing and heartbreakingly sweet.
The menace is first embodied in the film's titular character (Matthew McConaughey with his good-old-boy charm particularly suited for the role). Mud is a fugitive on the lam after murdering a man he caught making time with his girlfriend Juniper (played by a trashed up Reese Witherspoon). Holed up on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River—a tip of the hat to Twain—Mud is discovered by Ellis and Neckbone, two teen boys who happen upon him while venturing out on the river in their beat-up outboard motor boat. Soon enough the boys are less frightened by Mud than in awe of him—not unlike the way freshmen boys in high school look up to seniors with their facial hair, girls, and trucks. They even agree to help Mud reunite with Juniper and escape to the Gulf.
As the boys shuttle back and forth across the Mississippi, the presence of the river and the natural world that for eons has grown up around it become both a physical menace and place of refuge for the teens. That we too feel the river's presence is in no small part due to Adam Stone's cinematography, which gives the Mississippi a weight and strangeness akin to Werner Herzog's Amazon River in Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1973). As if to make the homage clear, Nichols lifts one of Agurrie's many remarkable images, an abandoned boat mystifyingly stranded high in a tree, and integrates it into his film's plot.
Though Mud becomes less of a threat to Ellis and Neckbone, there is still plenty of danger at hand, most significantly in the form of a Southern mafia of sorts, headed up by 70's Southern film icon Joe Don Baker, made famous for his role as Sheriff Buford Pusser in Walking Tall (1973). Somewhat predictably the mafia is out to get revenge for the death of the man Mud killed.
But if that feels like a warmed over conceit, don't worry, because Nichols's strength is keeping the specifics delightfully odd. Take the scene in a motel room, for example, as the mafia prepares to set out to find Mud. Baker's character, King, orders his men to kneel in a circle and hold hands in order to pray for God's help for their coming act of vengeance. It's a blatantly offbeat moment, but this mixture of down-home-religion and a propensity to violence in the name of self preservation rings true to my experience. You might call it a Saturday night/Sunday morning dialectic that never quite resolves itself, and is all the more dangerous for the tension.
But Mud isn't all meanness. At its center the film has a sincere sweetness that works as a nice counterpart to the rough-and-tough narrative. This sweetness is primarily found in Ellis (played by Tree of Life alum Tye Sheridan), a young teenager who despite spending most of his time running errands for Mud finds time to experience the exaltation and sting of first love. The object of his love is a high school girl named May Pearl (newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant), who is older, taller, and perhaps more experienced with the fickleness of teen love. Whether May Pearl ultimately shares Ellis's infatuation is question I'll leave open, but I will mention that in interviews Nichols has said he wanted to make a film about the pangs of first love.
With much of its focus on Ellis, Mud is in many ways unashamedly a teen film—particularly of the sort exemplified by, and I mean this in the best possible way, The Karate Kid (1984), or any number of films about the scrappy, outsider kid who gets the popular girl. (The comparison might not be too far off when you consider that Nichols, at thirty-four years old, is a child of the 80s, a decade in which kids with VCRs absorbed heart-on-its-sleeve fare like Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Say Anything (1989)).
Ultimately, the film's reach is broader than teenage love. In fact, there's not a romantic relationship in the film that isn't in trouble, from Ellis's parents' separation, to Mud's hot-and-cold relationship with Juniper, down to Ellis's teen fling with May Pearl. In this way, the film reveals itself to be more concerned with the perils of the heart and less with the physical hazards of the unruly South.
In the end this is Ellis's film, not Mud's. After all, Mud has already chosen violence as his way of dealing with love's heartache. Now it's Ellis's time to choose how he will move on.
The occasion of Mud's release provides a good opportunity to consider just what makes a Southern film work. For my money, the Southern film par excellence, and perhaps the film to which Mud owes the greatest debt, is Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter (1955).
Though Laughton was a Brit by birth and Hunter was his first and only time behind the camera, he managed to forge two strands of filmmaking, the expressionistic and the pastoral, in a way that acted as the perfect correlative to the South's eternal conflict: the competing allure of the spirits in the barroom and the Spirit of the meeting house.
If the "love" and "hate" tattoos on the knuckles of Robert Mitchum's "preacher" literalize this schizoid identity of the South, then so too does Laughton's overall visual approach. The film's narrative is relatively straightforward—Mitchum's Harry Powell stalks two West Virginian children, Pearl and John, across farms, hollows, and down a river after a pile of money, only eventually to come up against the motherly (and gun toting) figure of Rachel Cooper, an elderly woman of such benevolence that she takes stray youth into her home to raise them up right.
The children's world prior to Mitchum's arrival and their refuge from him in Cooper's domain are places of unspoiled beauty and goodness. Laughton captures them with a delicate touch, making it in some ways a touchstone to a film like Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978). Clearly working in D.W. Griffith's pastoral tradition, Laughton is interested in exploring the South as an idealized natural world, a place of idyllic splendor. The emphasis here should be on idealized, since Laughton's keen insight is the South as a fallen place whose contradictory attitudes and values—from its religious hypocrisy to its shameful history of racial division —ultimately soil its own pretenses as a place of Eden-like virtue.
To visually render this darker undercurrent of Southern identity, Laughton draws from the German Expressionist movement of the 1920s, whose most well known import is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920). Films from the German Expressionist school were the antithesis of the natural filmmaking, the kind embodied in Griffith's more pastoral mode. They used artificial lighting for precise and exaggerated shadows, created unreal sets with jutting and oblique angles, and employed an exaggerated style of acting. The idea was to externalize the internal dramas of the characters. In Hunter, it's as if the bucolic world cannot contain the darkness of Mitchum's murderous preacher. The expressionist style cannot help but break through the pastoral surface and onto the sets and lighting.
In this way, the explicit "good vs. evil" theme of the narrative is played out as a clash between two competing styles of visual representation. Laughton's genius is that he wildly swings between these two poles, creating a kind of moral wooziness that has us looking for a hold on solid ground—one that, ultimately, does not exist in the South's shifting landscape.
The best Southern films follow Hunter's lead and find a way to creatively wrestle with the South's dual nature. Some of the films that get it right are The Apostle (1997), Sling Blade (1996), Cool Hand Luke (1967), George Washington (2000), That Evening Sun (2009) and, yes, Deliverance (1972). These films stand out because they avoid characterizing the South solely in sentimental or mocking terms. The worst Southern films tend to emphasize either the South's gentility or meanness.
For a recent example of a film that gets it wrong, take John Hillcoat's Lawless (2012). With his story of three moonshiner brothers, Hillcoat gives us all dark and no light, all hate and no love. Yes, the accents are bad, the sets look inspired by the aesthetic of the Cracker Barrel, and one character even delivers the line "You're a peach" with a straight face. But what really hurts the film is the way the brothers and the residents of the rural Virginia County are paraded onto the screen as a sideshow to be gawked at. Their propensity toward ultra violence is just one more characteristic to be derided from afar. Religion, too, is treated with cheap cynicism, as if only the backward and primitive could find comfort in the church.
Perhaps the most overly used indicator of Southernness is this condescension toward characters who display religious zeal. Superior Southern films avoid this trap by treating religious matters with sincerity.
This is not to imply that films must unquestioningly affirm the faiths they represent. For example, with The Night of the Hunter Laughton does not endorse Rachel Cooper's brand of religion. Yet neither does he ridicule it as simpleminded. Instead, by acknowledging that such a source of strength exists for Rachel in an otherwise broken world, Laughton allows for the complications of the South, a place where the mysteries of faith still mean something.
It's hard to mention religion and the South without thinking of writer Flannery O'Connor. Perhaps best known for her violent stories of redemption, her way of telling stories seems strangely akin to Laughton's approach in Hunter. In fact, her first collection of short stories, A Good Man is Hard to Find, debuted the same year Hunter hit theaters.
Admittedly, the case of O'Connor complicates my earlier thoughts on the need to represent the dual nature of the South stylistically: her mien was more of a shout than a whisper, or in cinematic terms less pastoral and more expressionistic. Still, her end was always grace—something altogether impossible for the filmmaker who stoops to derision or cheap sentimentality. And she saw violence as a means to grace for a hardheaded and hardhearted generation who no longer believed in the need for redemption.
Surprisingly, there has only been one film adaptation of O'Connor's work, John Huston's Wise Blood (1979). The film is a knockout, capturing the potent mix of lust of the flesh and desire for faith boiling in Hazel Motes.
What makes the success remarkable is that it wasn't until directing the final scenes that Huston realized the book is sincere in its narrative concerning Christ's redemption—he thought he'd been making a film about religion-crazed freaks. That O'Connor's vision translates to the screen despite Huston's misunderstanding is a testament that some works are so singular that they transcend notions of religion, region, and genre altogether.