Film review – Mud (2012)

13 June 2013
Mud: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey)

What is the worst thing to tell a young teenage boy? To not trust women and be suspicious of love, or that women are to be worshiped and love conquers all? In Jeff Nichols’s third feature film Mud, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is told both extremes. Bitter about the breakdown of his marriage, Ellis’s father (Ray McKinnon) is one of the many older male characters living in the small community near the Mississippi River in Arkansas who tell Ellis not to fall in love because women are just no good. Then there is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the fugitive that Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover hiding out on a small island in the river. Unlike all the other adult characters in the film, Mud is full of enthusiasm and hope, believing in the transcendent power of love and believing that all he needs to live happily ever after is to be reunited with his on-and-off girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

The Mississippi River setting and distinctively southern American coming-of-age narrative reveal how influential Mark Twain’s 1876 novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) is for Nichols. Even though Mud goes into thriller and even gangster genre territory, it fundamentally remains a film about childhood and the experiences of friendship, first love and entering the adult world by accepting responsibility. Ellis is an impressionable yet good-natured boy, attempting to make sense of the conflicting messages he gets from the adult characters. As he is increasingly drawn towards the charismatic and seemingly righteous Mud, he finds the events of own life being reflected in that of Mud’s to the extent that Mud becomes both a future projection of the man Ellis may become as well as a Christ-like figure.

Mud is something of an update of the 1961 British film Whistle Down the Wind (directed by Bryan Forbes from a 1959 novel by Mary Hayley Bell) where three children mistake a hidden fugitive for Jesus Christ. While Ellis does not literally believe Mud to be the Messiah, he does increasingly regard him as a mythical figure. A transient and outlaw figure who lives in a boat that was dumped in a tree after a flood, Mud is an enticing mystery to the impressionable Ellis, and to a lesser degree the far more cynical Neckbone. After being on the run and hiding in the wild, Mud looks suitably dirty and dishevelled, yet speaks with a disconcerting eloquence. He is a capable survivalist and yet places immense value in objects and symbols, facilitating one scene where as Mud McConaughey gets to remove his shirt for reasons that are essential to the narrative. McConaughey going topless in a film is nothing new, but no previous film that he has starred in so successful justifies the display of his physique by making it an essential part of his character’s psychological development.

The crucial aspect of Mud’s mythology is that it is self-generated and a product of both self-delusion and bravado. He is larger than life figure and looms large in Ellis’s world. Most importantly is that Ellis has fallen in love with a local girl and while the other men he knows are dismissive or even hostile to women, Mud’s declarations of love for Juniper are a revelation for Ellis. Ellis becomes Mud’s disciple, assisting him with his planned escape and mimicking his behaviour. Ellis learns of Mud’s violence toward men who have reportedly hurt Juniper and in turn Ellis begins to act violently toward men he believes are a threat to the girl he has fallen for. Unrealistic idealism soon becomes destructive.

Mud emerges as a false yet benign prophet that inadvertently sets Ellis up for a crisis of faith. After establishing a clear point of difference between Ellis’s dysfunctional home life and the idealised world expressed by Mud, the film becomes increasingly complicated as Ellis learns that not everything is as cut and dried as Mud had lead him to believe. A series of emotional and physical conflicts lead Ellis to learn that while women are not the enemy, nor are they idealised beings who only exist to redeem troubled men. It is an invaluable lesson that makes Mud an extremely sophisticated and progressive examination on how adolescent masculinity is defined by often-contradictory cultural attitudes towards femininity.

Mud may not quite achieve the psychological intensity of Nichols’s Take Shelter, but it is still a strong and complex portrayal of a man grappling with how he perceives the world and how that perception affects the people around him. In Take Shelter Curtis (played by Michael Shannon who also appears in Mud as Neckbone’s uncle Galen) has visions of apocalyptic storms while Mud is obsessed with symbolism. It is fitting that in a film where women are often described as bringing about the downfall of men, the snake is a reoccurring motif, evoking the Biblical story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. A mud pit filled with snakes near Mud’s hideout is frequently depicted, Mud has a snake tattoo and Mud claims that the purpose of snakes is to create fear. It is a rich and layered set of Biblical and psychoanalytic symbolism, designed to represent male anxiety at its most hysterical and alarmist.

Despite the slightly jarring intrusion towards the end of the film of a subplot and set of characters that feel like they belong in a different film, Mud is an impressive male coming-of-age story. McConaughey impresses once more in what is possibly his most complex role to date, Witherspoon displays a depth of character that audiences have not seen from her since her early performances in 1990s American independent films and Sheridan brings to the screen a youthful intensity that suggest a star on the rise. At the heart of it all is an old fashioned yet welcome message that love is a wonderful thing, even though it does not always work out. And real men do not hold women accountable for their woes.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – The Paperboy (2012)

4 March 2013
The Paperboy: Jack Jansen (Zac Efron)

Jack Jansen (Zac Efron)

Early in Lee Daniels’s film adaptation of Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel The Paperboy is a moment demonstrating how the film will function as an inverse of social conventions. The protagonist Jack Jansen (Zac Efron), a young college dropout who has moved back to his home in southern Florida, is lying in his bedroom when the house maid and film’s narrator Anita Chester (Macy Gray) enters. After some playful banter that suggests the young white boy and older black woman do not see each other in a master/servant context, the pair decides to swap places. Jack pretends to fuss about the messy state of the bedroom while Anita drops to the ground and declares she is going to lie around and jerk off all day. Set in the early 1960s in a notoriously conservative part of America, this swapping of racial, gender and class roles evokes the Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin’s writing on the carnivalesque. The use of humour, the grotesque and parody to subvert social norms, hierarchies and notions of good taste runs throughout The Paperboy, a film noir that is set in the bright blistering heat of the Florida sun, the inverse to the shadow filled metropolises of traditional film noir.

The initial set-up for the film is a journalistic investigation into an alleged wrongful arrest. Jack’s older brother Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) arrives back in town with colleague Yardley Acheman (David Oyelowo) to write about Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack), a man on death row for the murder of a despised local sheriff. Also in the picture is Charlotte Bless (Nicole Kidman), a woman with a background of becoming romantically obsessed with inmates who now wants to marry Hillary. While The Paperboy at first glance seems to be a fight against injustice and police corruption narrative, the investigation into Hillary’s presumed innocence soon falls into the background to function as the catalyst for what the film really wants to explore: an Oedipal dynamic between Jack, Charlotte and Hillary.

As an overtly sexual woman who desires dangerous men, Charlotte is quickly identified as the film’s femme fatale. Jack is instantly drawn to her and it is no coincidence that she’s a much older woman and Jack does not have a mother of his own; hence the symbolic son and mother relationship of the Oedipal scenario. The symbolic father is Hillary whom Jack believes he has to rescue Charlotte from since she desires him against all common sense. Keeping with the inverse of expectations theme, Hillary is revealed not to be a suffering victim of injustice but a crude, misogynist and racist man. For a film with so many sexual allusions, the most explicit scene is when at Hillary’s command Charlotte mimes giving him oral sex. The scene is confronting and uncomfortably comical, and constantly shows the reactions of the disturbed and bemused onlookers who include Jack. The moment is a lurid encapsulation of a psychoanalytic primal scene, where Jack is traumatised watching his symbolic parents engaged in a sexual act. The presentation of Charlotte as symbolic mother and object of desire for Jack is further perverted when she urinates on his jellyfish stings; an act that is both bizarrely nurturing and sexual.

And yet Charlotte is not a traditional femme fatale in the sense that she is not blamed for bringing about the downfall of the male hero. Her sexuality is not deceitful and she is always open about her feelings and attitude towards sex. Within the context of the other characters Charlotte is a character of striking honesty and purity. Unlike investigative journalist ‘heroes’ Ward and Yardley, Charlotte keeps no secrets about who she is. The only other character that compares to her in this regard is Anita who functions as Jack’s moral compass. The Paperboy contains several touching and tender moments between Jack and Anita to suggest the extent in which boundaries concerning race, sexuality and gender are artificial and constructed.

Nevertheless, The Paperboy is a gleefully carnivalesque film, but a contemporary one since it parodies not just dominant culture but what dominant culture perceives to be its binary opposite. To put it another way, the film’s camp aesthetic means that the targets for derision are across the board. The film portrays heterosexual sex acts as perverse and grotesque, but does the same for homosexual acts. There are both male and female characters who are presented as caricatures, and both white and black characters are portrayed as deceitful. The lower classes are mocked and so are the upper classes, as represented by Jack and Ward’s father WW Jansen (Scott Glenn) and his girlfriend Nancy (Nikolette Noel). Yet underneath the borderline hysterical plot twists and oversaturated colour scheme is the empathy between Jack and Anita, and also between Jack and Ward. The portrayal of the relationship between individual characters, when free from how they identify as belonging to particular social groups, is what is crucial to why The Paperboy is more than a giant southern American freak show.

The most arresting part of The Paperboy is saved until the end when the film makes its definitive attack on cultural hegemony. The film concludes in the dangerous yet cinematically beautiful swamp, which exists as a transgressive space of otherness in a similar way to the oft mentioned but never seen Chinatown in Roman Polanski’s 1974 film Chinatown. Such primal and exotic spaces that exist outside of what is considered civilisation are often evoked in film noir and other American genres, and are designed to somehow destroy the male hero. However, in the topsy-turvy world of The Paperboy this is not a space that has been defined by external cultures, but one that has been defined by white, masculine, heterosexuality at its most perverse and deadly. The ultimate threat that Jack faces is not due to his exposure to black culture, or homosexuality or to female sexuality. Instead the threat is monstrous dominant American culture as personified by the swamp people.

Everything about The Paperboy seems designed to undermine expectations and the result is an exhilaratingly unpredictable film with moments that induce shocked laughter as well as moments of surprising empathy. By creating a film that at times seems so gaudy and out-of-control, Daniel proves himself to be a master filmmaker. Lurid use of music and superimposition create delirious sequences to convey Jack’s point-of-view. One sequence is after a jellyfish has stung him; another is to convey his sexual obsession with Charlotte. Both moments are similarly hallucinogenic to capture the madness and intensity of his longing for Charlotte. Shot on widescreen 16mm and then blown up to the size of 35mm, the film has both an old fashioned yet otherworldly feel, in keeping with its subversion of film noir style and themes. Audiences willing to surrender to the cinematic subversions and transgressions found within The Paperboy will be rewarded with an experience that is both strangely familiar and yet seems entirely unique.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Film review – Bernie (2011)

16 August 2012
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

At times feeling less like a based-on-a-true story narrative film and more like an extended re-enactment documentary, Bernie quietly undermines traditional approaches to crime dramas and black comedy. The film is co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” that the film is based on, and it casts actual townspeople who were around at the time the real story took place as talking head interviewees. The commentary provided by the townspeople feels partly like a Greek Chorus and partly like footage from a mockumentary. Once combined with the scripted drama the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction by director and co-writer Richard Linklater.

The titular character is Bernie Tiede, an effeminate assistant funeral director who in the mid 1990s had seemingly charmed the entire Texan town of Carthage with his generosity, kindness, refinement and empathy. Linklater has previously worked with actor Jack Black on The School of Rock (2003) where Black’s slacker party-animal persona was used to its full potential. As the lead in Bernie Black delivers a restrained performance in a role that could have been played broadly, but is instead carefully measured. There’s little of the mania that Black can be capable of and instead what emerges is a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. In the conservative town the film is set in, Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual. His charity makes him almost too good to be true and as the film builds to the moment when Bernie commits the crime that inspired the original article, it is unknown if his over-the-top care for widowed old ladies is due to true affection or something more mercenary.

Supporting actors are also strong. As Marjorie Nugent, Shirley MacLaine is pitiful and contemptible as the wealthy widow who makes life miserable for the rest of the town through her greed and meanness. Like so many other aspects in this film her relationship with Bernie is ambiguously defined, although it is clear that a mutually dependent, yet toxic, companionship occurred. Regular Linklater actor Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the kind of character who is typically the hero in such films; however, in Bernie he plays the role of an incredulous ‘outsider’. Despite being somebody from within the community, Danny is a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side.

Regardless of how premeditated his actions may have been Bernie is presented as a man who yearned to be loved and accepted, which manifested into his extreme generosity with time and money. Linklater’s film reveals very little about the background and motivates of its protagonist to instead demonstrate how a community could rally around him despite the crime he committed and confessed to. If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.

 Thomas Caldwell, 2012