Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 25, 2013


Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 5:45 pm

Young “indie” filmmakers tend to follow trends. One of the more popular is “mumblecore”, the genre that tends to embody “slacker” values and esthetics even as it aspires to commercial success. Think Lena Dunham. The other is at the other spectrum and can be described as the Terrence Malick School of filmmaking. It is known for having much more interest in landscape photography than character development.

And then there are those like Jeff Nichols, who march to the tune of a different drummer. My last Jeff Nichols film was the 2011 “Take Shelter” that I picked for the best of the year. I described it:

“Take Shelter” has a premise much like “Close Encounters of the Close Kind” but turned upside down in a malignant fashion. While the object of awe and wonder in Spielberg’s great movie was Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, the future landing site of flying saucers piloted by benign creatures, Nichols’s main character is haunted by nightmares of an apocalyptic future as well as by hallucinations when he is awake. Birds fall out a blue sky while terrible thunderstorms produce raindrops with the consistency of motor oil and a brackish smell.

“Mud”, his latest, opens tomorrow at theaters everywhere. While it is not quite up to the standard set by “Take Shelter”, it is about as good a narrative film as I have seen this year. It stars Matthew McConaughey as a mysterious, gun-toting figure who is hiding out on an island nearby a Southern river (possibly the Mississippi), looking for the first opportunity he can find to link up with Juniper, the treacherous siren he loves and has killed for.

He is discovered by two teenagers who have spotted a boat wedged in the branches of a tree—the result of a recent hurricane—and are anxious to lay claim to it without realizing that it is Mud’s hideout. When they first run into McConaughey, he announces: “Call me Mud”.

One of the teens is Ellis, the son of a man who cobbles out a living as a trapper and a fisherman on the river. The other is Neckbone, who is being raised by his affable, good old boy uncle (played by Michael Shannon, the star of “Take Shelter”, and cast against his usual malevolent type.)

For the most part, the film focuses on the ambivalent relationship between Mud and Ellis who admires the resourceful loner who shows him much more attention and affection than his cold and remote father. As might be expected, a fugitive like Mud has other things to worry about than satisfying a boy’s hero worship.

Some critics have likened “Mud” to “Huckleberry Finn” since it is set on the Mississippi and shows a young man bonding with a fugitive. (Nichols told an interviewer that Mark Twain was a major influence but mostly through “Tom Sawyer”.) I thought it evoked “Great Expectations” as well since Dickens’s novel also depicts a young boy coming to the aid of an escaped prisoner.

There are a couple of problems with the film. The most serious of which is the failure to establish the stormy past of Mud and Juniper’s relationship. The film would have benefited from flashbacks that grounded their country-and-western inspired love story. There is also a somewhat conventionally plotted shoot-out between Mud and a gang assembled by the father of the man he killed that almost felt thrown in by Nichols to meet audience expectations.

The most dramatically interesting scenes involve the complex interactions between Mud and the boys as they both challenge and defer to him in a way that they never could with their own fathers. They strike a bargain with Mud. In exchange for them rounding up spare parts to get the salvaged boat navigable, he will give them his pistol. Once the boat has been launched, he completes his end of the bargain but only after removing the bullets. He says, “I promised you a gun, not the bullets”. As is nearly always the case with Mud, his charm assuages them.

In a casting coup as brilliant as Tarantino using the nearly washed up John Travolta to play a hit man, Nichols picked just the perfect actor to play Mud. Now 43, McConaughey has exactly the weathered look that suits his character. Early in his career, he played in forgettable romantic comedies. Now middle-aged, he is doing the best work of his career.

If Nichols is determined to make films that express his own aesthetic rather than what is fashionable in the industry, it does not follow that he is without influences. In a January interview with MovieMezzanine.com, Nichols cited his influences:

Yeah, you know, whenever I get asked that question I often think less about specific directors and more about films. But, I’m a big fan of John Ford. I’m a big fan of Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock is actually the one major influence because in a way because he picked a genre, he picked fear, which isn’t actually a genre, but an emotion, to work in. But people know him as “oh, he’s that guy that made scary movies” … but it’s because fear (which is why enjoy I love Take Shelter so much) is such a tangible thing to do through filmmaking.

John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock. What’s not to like?


  1. Why are your commas outside the quotation marks? (Great review!)

    Comment by red black — April 26, 2013 @ 3:21 am

  2. I know what the Chicago Book of Style has to say about commas and quotes but I choose to ignore it, mainly because it violates my own sense of grammar.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 26, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

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