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.