There’s something endearing and enduring about the Southern Gothic: a genre almost caught in a time bubble, it never seems to go out of fashion or run out of fascinating stories to tell, and while they rarely hit the mainstream, they often become art house darlings, receiving critical acclaim and awards recognition. Last year, we had Behn Zeitlin’s beautiful ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’, and this year we’ve had Lee Daniels’ outstanding ‘The Paperboy’. Following quickly and viciously is their path is ‘Mud’, a tightly-wound thriller from acclaimed emerging director Jeff Nichols.
Set on the banks of a river in Arkansas, ‘Mud’ follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two teenagers who head out to a nearby deserted island. They’ve heard rumours of a boat stuck up in a tree after a recent flood, and decide to claim it for themselves. When they find the boat, however, they also find that someone has already claimed it - a mysterious man with a canvas white shirt and snake tattoos wrapped around his arm (Matthew McConaughey). He needs their help to get the boat seaworthy to get back to his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but he can’t leave the island to get what he needs. His past is catching up with him, and a crime he hasn’t paid for. When they ask his name, he replied simply, "You can call me Mud."
‘Mud’ is a Southern Gothic in the classic sense of the genre - a coming-of-age journey for a young central figure, where experience with human nature shatters his innocence. Nichols, who also wrote the film, allows much to mellow in subtext, placing more focus on the perspective of Ellis rather than the adults around him. The landscape itself is also a vital character and commentator within the film, and Nichols has a keen eye on how to film such a landscape. Mud’s island, in particular, is a beautifully conceived environment; an almost mythical island of hidden dangers that can only be approached by boat, inhabited by a mysterious, almost shaman figure. The characters are intrinsically linked to their environments - decrepit house boats and grounded lifestyle constantly threatened by the approach and dictates of the modern world. Stylistically, Nichols feels more like a student than a master, safely borrowing rhythms and narrative beats from the great works of others. There is a strong familiarity with ‘Mud’, like you’ve seen this film before. There are definite aesthetic overtones of Terrence Malick’s ‘Badlands’ (1973) or even more so, David Gordon Green’s ‘Undertow’ (2004). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though. Its familiarity is part of what makes ‘Mud’ such a thrilling experience. It doesn’t stray into magic realism like ‘Beasts’ or wander into pulp melodrama like ‘The Paperboy’. It understands its genre, its textures and the landscape that acts as its canvas, and brings just enough of the mythical quality of the South to raise the film above a conventional thriller.
Where Nichols also succeeds is in his inspired casting. While the supporting players are uniformly excellent (especially from Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard), the film belongs to its two leading men. Sheridan is a real find, a naturally intelligent young actor who made his debut in Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’. The demands of the character and the narrative could easily have swamped him, but Sheridan attacks them with aplomb. Ellis is a complex figure, a young man on the edge of maturity, wrestling with the concept of what love is, both within himself and in the world around him. In that, Mud and Ellis are on the same journey of discovery, and approaching it from the same level of immaturity that makes love an idealised concept never reciprocated by their objects of affection. Ellis, for all his teenage bravado, is cracking on the inside from disappointment, and Sheridan carefully charts those cracks, allowing them to appear and bubble over exactly when they are most potent. Much of the success of his performance, though, can also be attributed to his chemistry with his co-star. It’s been thrilling to see McConaughey reassert himself as a formidable talent over the past year, and ‘Mud’ is another step in the right direction. While one might expect Mud to be a hard, impenetrable character, McConaughey imbues him with great tenderness and heart, a delicacy that quickly eradicates any sense of menace from his character. And this is a good thing, with external forces acting as antagonists to Mud’s staunch idealism. The last decade for McConaughey has been a confusing one, with his incredible promise as an actor getting lost in fluffy comedies and silly action romps. ‘Mud’ helps assert him as a significant leading man, and one completely unafraid to take risks.
‘Mud’ helps assert Matthew McConaughey as a significant leading man, and one completely unafraid to take risks.
In its final act, ‘Mud’ begins to stumble a bit, its considered pace threatening to rob the climax of its power, and Nichols makes an unnecessary attempt to humanise the antagonists at the last second. Mud’s pursuers, a mob-style family intent on revenge, have functioned until this point as shadowy figures, but the film suddenly spends more time with them than necessary, taking us away from the characters we’ve already connected with and punctuating the end of the film with unnecessary codas. It’s unfortunate, as what preceded it had been so clearly aimed. In the end, the film thankfully gets back on track, and after widening its gaze too far, returns it to Ellis and Mud, two figures driven by love coming to an understanding of its place in their lives.
Southern Gothic always tends to deal with themes of humanity and human nature rather than a wider socio-political view, and connects to a natural landscape with texture and history unlike any other. It’s this that makes them timeless, that allows them to cross language and cultural barriers. We’ve been spoilt lately in this genre, and ‘Mud’ is yet another great entry. It might not have the thundering resonance that others have had, but it still packs a considerable punch, with a cracking thriller at its heart and tremendous performances. Unfortunately, it’s only receiving a limited release in Australia, but if the muddy waters and mysterious jungles of Arkansas take your fancy, this is definitely worth seeking out.