DW Mault finds danger and beauty in Mud, the latest flick forcing us to reassess Matthew McConaughey…
Modern American literature is a bastard form of originality that sings from the descent of manifest destiny and theft throughout the ages; Southern gentility forms the Janus face that steals while guiding victims down avenues of good taste and discernment.
America itself is a behemoth that knows not what it isn’t, only what it thinks it is; as with all Empires, the hallowed days of yore are entering a defeated reality that can be seen from the stars but not from within the idea of ourselves. In these end of days, what to do but escape to a Henry David Thoreau-like existence, batten down the hatches and hide out with our head in the sand of a Walden of our own making; around us an encroaching reality we have no part of changes our historical perspective.
Ernest Hemingway himself acclaimed Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn as the Ground Zero of American literature; a Rosetta Stone of truth that comes from lies, and shows us how perspective changes through the ages, but unpalatable ossified modes of interaction of a time and place and should not be classified by the standards of the present.
The modern American south is a place wrecked by the detritus of historical mistakes, the results of which are told via the great oral traditions that stand in for the formed ‘truth’ created by the victors of war, and narrative selfhood that teems through like an after effect of righteousness. With this in mind, it is in fact the emergence of the South and that old adage that ‘the South will rise again,’ that brings us to Jeff Nichols’ Mud.
Nichols, like many American filmmakers not interested in the vagaries of the false notion of plot and story, is labelled with the misnomer of Malickian; an horrible honourable that diminishes with false praise, and forces an young artist to second guess themselves while being presented with the possibility of becoming ensconced (entrapped?) within the Ivory Towers of the quasi-Military Industrial Complex that is the modern US Studio System.
With two films already acclaimed (Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter), and a reputation for a unique perspective from within the without of modern Arkansas that seems to offer the possibility of drifting outside history while trying to forget that the darkness of our surroundings corrode the being that makes us forget that the walls shout and scream that beauty can only hide so much pain; Nichols was the toast of Cannes last year (where Mud screened in Competition and was widely spoken of as the best US film on the Cote d’Azur) and now we finally have a chance to see for ourselves.
Coming across like a Southern post-Antebellum expansion on Bryan Forbes’ overblown and self serving Whistle Down The Wind Mud is, it seems, another film appearing to have been corrupted by marketeers (a la Spring Breakers and Place Beyond The Pines), in the sense of the falsity of the trailer bearing no relation to the film itself.
This placid near masterpiece about childhood experience is more Mark Twain’s Adventures Of Tom Sawyer than any official adaption of that birthplace of American narrative; if any prospective audience member chanced upon this film from the aforementioned trailer they would be entitled to their money back. Not for this film then pathetic attempts at looking sideways at a potential Jesus figure, rather observing the idea of the man of the land, who survives against the anti-agrarian future that all but killed off the surrounding environment that allowed no one to go hungry or lose the idea of self that comes through self determination.
Matthew McConaughey plays the eponymous Mud, a fugitive on the run from the police and the family of his victim. He is discovered by Ellis and Neckbone who help him repair a disowned river boat. Again, like most plots when explained or written down, it appears banal or thoughtless. Mud is a film with time on its hands, a film that is unfrightened of the slowness of the now and a film close to the Buddhist idea of oneness. There is a sense of myth at play here, that both enlightens and shows us the other; the other in the sense of a way outside who we are and can be. Of course the film looks beautiful but it knows that with surrounding beauty there must always be harshness and ugliness.
Mud is a true Southern experience with patronising representations of that misjudged place firmly left alone, and only a sense of the dignity of the marginalised to hold onto while drums of death approach. It’s a piece of cinema that creeps up on you, that allows characters to evolve in front of you. A representation of childhood that seems rare in its knowledge of the danger faced by nature and how unaware that places us.
This is existence on the life giver that is the/a river; how with modernity there is struggle and strife, which means there are those to be sacrificed, which is of course the American way; but what of those masses and their attempts to achieve parity in an unfair world? These are the concepts sneaked into a piece of beauty that masquerades as Southern quaintness but is so much more.
Mud is at its base level the film that Beasts Of The Southern Wild should have been; it’s a film that allows itself to exist without demanding your attention and for that, if only for that idea of stillness during the dead hour of 4pm in the afternoon, we should be grateful.
Mud opens on general release from Friday 10th May