Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Crawling in Mud

I haven't said anything about Jeff Nichols' Mud even though I watched it nearly three months ago when it first came out in Dallas. It's a movie that represents an exciting theme during the first half of 2013: an independent, personal project that has a feeling of substantial size and heft: the other most notable examples of that this year would, to me, be The Place Beyond the Pines and Before Midnight.

When I saw Mud, it was the same weekend that Iron Man 3 opened, and I remember the saturday night as I picked between the two and decided to go with Mud (even though I generally really take to the Iron Man movies). Everyone was seeing the new Marvel adventure that weekend (175 million dollars worth of folks, at least), but I was keenly drawn to the smaller indie playing at the art house theater only to be thrilled at how large the whole thing felt. Its storytelling was so ambitious, and while Nichols' heart was in the story's heartbreak, the movie was also undeniably a great thriller. And it looked big: Nichols, using a steadicam with his regular DP, Adam Stone (there's only one scene in the movie where he uses a handheld, and that's because, according to Nichols, the steadicam operator happened to be at a wedding) brought a world that was very personal to him to life with rich texture of a steady sense of control. And so I left the theatre thinking that I had just seen a great summer movie. This is what I want a blockbuster to be like. If there was more confidence in American audiences today, Mud would have opened in a few thousand theaters and people would have loved it. As it stands the movie, its personal merits notwithstanding, has been a wild success. With the exception of Before Midnight, it's been a while since an American film has been so critically lauded. Not to rely solely on review aggregators, but Nichols' movie has a staggering 98% approval rating out of 154 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. For a film that at times feels too big for its own good, such universal acclaim is a little surprising-and definitely encouraging (still not a surprise. Nichols' has always gotten along great with the critics. Of the three films he's made, there have been a combined 348 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Of those, only 19 are negative). 

Mud also sat in the top 10 in the box office for weeks, not making huge numbers because it was only in 500 or so theaters, but enough for it to still be hanging around months later. Which brings me to the point of this entry, namely that someone I know recently saw it and had some interesting criticisms to make.

Now, I generally fully endorse the film, partly because I love Nichols in general, and because though the movie has problems, no one has had the guts that I can think of to try to pull something like it off (the only semi-recent example I can think of is Undertow). It's Nichols' ambition that I applaud most, and that he manages to hold the film together as well as he does (it's definitely not perfect) is not something that should be taken for granted. The movie's also just damn entertaining and fun. 

But there are some deeper things going on, things crawling below in the mud, shall we say, which this person alluded to when talked about the film. First of all, though I would never subscribe to such a claim, one could argue that the movie's a little misogynistic. There are three major female figures in the film: Ellis' mother, Juniper (Mud's love interest) and May Pearl (Ellis' high school crush). Ellis' mother doesn't get a lot of attention, but she never comes across as particularly caring or having any real motherly instincts toward Ellis. She never earns any sympathies because she doesn't fulfill her role that she by nature took on when giving birth to Ellis.

Likewise, May Pearl is essentially a tease, a girl who initially seems to have some feelings for the younger Ellis, but ultimately chooses status over any kind of loyalty. And Juniper comes across as the worst because her notion of loyalty, namely that it doesn't really exist in her world, proves to be damaging because there are greater stakes at play than with the May Pearl scenario. It all can come across as looking as if May Pearl, an innocent high school girl, is destined to follow in Juniper's footsteps because she isn't adhering to any principles of loyalty. And one could take this a step further and say that even in marriage, seen in Ellis' parents' crumbling relationship, a diminished sense of loyalty, in this case to the marriage bond, is causing the problems, and it's all really the fault of the women. 

This is in direct correlation to the next criticism, which is that the film seems to take an anti-chivalry position, or at least poses that it's a virtue that's ultimately dashed by the woman's disregard for loyalty. Ellis and Mud are obviously operating on a parallel course in that they each idealize an individual woman and have their sights set on capturing their hearts. In other words, they're both romantics. If anyone takes the traditional Arthurian virtue of chivalry as a vital attitude for a man to have towards a woman, might they be a tad disappointed in what this film has to say? Isn't it essentially making the case, based merely on the content and characters of the story, that the selfish behavior of women leaves man incapable of fulfilling such a virtue?

There are a few other minor points that I won't get into, but I would like to respond to these somewhat serious claims that could easily slip by a casual viewer but are actually pretty blatant when you start to think about it. First of all, on the film's puzzling treatment of women. It's true, they all come across as pretty lousy, but only insofar as this story is concerned. Nichols isn't saying women are disappointments, he's merely saying that for this story on the Mississippi River they are because they're supposed to be breaking the hearts of the male protagonists. And let's not forget that Nichols doesn't exactly paint Mud as a saint either, which the character affirms in his last words to Ellis, while also denying that women are nothing but trouble. 

One also cannot forget that the interesting thing about Nichols is that he approaches each new project with a single idea in mind and creates a fascinating world out of it. In Shotgun Stories, he wanted to figure out what would happen if someone killed his brother. In Take Shelter he was concerned with the idea of his own marriage falling apart. And if anyone sees Ellis' in Mud home a as postcard for the post-modern family, they should turn to the LaForches in Take Shelter, where Nichols embraces the structure of a complete family. What are Nichols' sights set on for Mud? In the words of Guy Clark's new song, he's hell bent on a heartache. 

As for the view that the movie doesn't hold chivalry to be a virtue capable of being achieved in the post-modern world, I would say themes of chivalry are hardly Nichols' end goal for this story. He uses that particular virtue, and the women's breaking it down, as a means towards his real interest, namely the nature of masculine maturity. This isn't just a very male-centered film, it's a male-domiated film. It lives a breathes male psychology, male interests, a man's love of dirt and boats and eating beans from a can with your finger as a spoon. It could be argued that Nichols' is a weak storyteller if all his women are so one-sided, but frankly he doesn't really have time to do much else with them (nor did Twain in Huckleberry Finn, for that matter). He's already tackling two very complicated characters in Mud and Ellis, and to do more would both be a supreme challenge and sort of a defeat of his overall agenda. As I said, Nichols' wanted to make a film about male heartbreak and how that leads to their own inner-growth. By having May Pearl and Juniper destroy Ellis' and Mud's romantic ideals is not so much to criticize woman but to indicate the parallel between these two male characters. Nichols' wants to give them a sort of emotional morphing, and that is something quite interesting. 

When it's all said and done, I kind of love this movie more for eliciting these kinds of responses. Nichols made an adventure film for sure, yet since when has there been one this interesting? The more I think about it, its flaws included, the more I feel like its got some sort of legend building up behind it. It may not say anything terribly new, but Nichols, in his typical refreshing, true-American-original fashion, makes us care all the same. Plus, how could a story about two kids helping a weathered hero take a boat out of a tree not hold up?

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