Mud (2012), directed by Jeff Nichols

It’s been a week since I watched Mud and I’m not sure why I haven’t felt the need to review it until now. Maybe I was trying to prepare myself emotionally. Maybe I’ve just been crazy busy (which is true). But I also have a decided lack of things to say about it. Which, I know, shame on me.

Mud is the latest from probably my favourite currently working director (okay, tied with like 10 other directors). Jeff Nichols directed Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), easily two of the best movies of the last 10 years, in my occasionally humble opinion.

He also carries the torch of the Southern Gothic Quiet Film genre, of which I am a big fan.

A word about the Southern Gothic Quiet Film genre:

Apparently, its popularity has spread. When I was a budding movie lover, I discovered the films of Terrence Malick and they blew me away. The poetic narration, the exquisite scenery, the use of silence, the simmering emotions, the rural idealization…I don’t know, for some reason it all just spoke to me, which doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense, considering I grew up in a town next to an ocean on the Canadian West Coast. Not exactly an agricultural oasis.

In any case, and sorry for the autobiography, then I discovered David Gordon Green and he was the bee’s knees for me. He took Malick’s style and grace and applied it to everyday people and stories of love, friendship, etc. I still argue George Washington as one of the greatest films of all time.

My point is, up until a few years ago films of this style could be counted on a couple of hands and attributed to a couple of people.

But now, it’s catching.

Beasts of the Southern Wild bummed me out last year for being hailed as so “original” and masterfully crafted when it really derived from the lineage of Malick and Green, but used their language for questionable means, in my eye. Benh Zeitlin obviously captured the tone, and added his own touch of magic realism, but I found his subject matter and the depth of his vision lacking.

Derek Cianfrance has obviously seen Badlands once or twice too, and I found The Place Beyond the Pines to have much of the silence and scope of a Malick feature. His style is a cousin of the Southern Gothic Quiet Film genre, he loses the narration and isn’t as obsessed with nature as the others, but the tone is unmistakably derivative.

Andrew Dominik fits in here too, I believe, especially with The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford.

But Jeff Nichols is easily the best of the bunch and certainly has put his own mark on a style I would argue originated from Malick. Nichols doesn’t use voiceovers, but he has the same obsession with nature, with stories of the South, with sunset shots, with characters on the edges of an evolving society they no longer understand, with the consequences of violence.

Mud follows along in this vein. It’s a story of relationships, between father and son, between friends, between a man and a woman, children and adults. Like Malick’s The Tree of Life (also staring Tye Sheridan, who will also star in David Gordon Green’s Joe… These filmmakers all tend to overlap actors and crew) the film spends a lot of time exploring that line between youth and adulthood, looking at the forces and relationships which shape us.

It’s a beautiful film, filled with touching performances. Matthew McConaughey continues his “legitimate actor phase” with an understated, somewhat campy performance that fits the overall tone of the film well. The other adults in the film, namely Ray McKinnon (Deadwood) and Sam Shepard, also impress, as do the child actors, who approach their roles with surprising depth.

It’s not an auteurist contest, I know, but I will say this is my least favourite of Nichols’ films so far, but one I feel will grow with repeated viewings.

The aspect of river folk fighting to keep their style of life alive in the face of modernization was handled well and with a full understanding that change is inevitable and will not ruin all. The tone of the movie is captivating and Nichols once again proves his ability to tell a story with nuance and understatement. As these style of films typically are, it’s a movie of moments: of instances of violence, of long unspoken words bursting to the surface, of sudden tragedy.

But the moments add up to a compelling whole. I believe Nichols is getting more ambitious and I didn’t find Mud as tight as his other features. It noticeably shoots for the big picture, whereas his other masterpieces found their meaning in the confined lives of their characters, which is where Nichols put his focus. Mud has this, but Nichols’ overall point seemed broader and more intentional. I believe the film lost something in that.

Regardless, it is one of the best of the year so far, and further proof that there are still intelligent, talented filmmakers in the world. Top of the heap is Jeff Nichols.

Mud is in cinemas now.

Killer Joe

Killer Joe (2011), directed by William Friedkin

Y’all know I can love a good lurid film. My favourite lurid film this year was The Paperboy which the more I think about, the more I like. I don’t mind my cinematic treats getting down and dirty.

But with Killer Joe I can’t decide if it’s strangely brilliant or utterly worthless.

The film is in that tradition of southern Gothic heat, sex and blood type movies. It takes place in Texas, features lowlife characters living in trailer parks and not batting an eye when one brings up the killing of another. It contains graphic, shocking violence and uncomfortable, just plain wrong sex. Sometimes they’re combined.

It’s certainly an odd film. On one hand it’s a comedy, because this is all so ridiculous and over the top that how could it not be. On the other hand though it takes it’s comedic side pretty seriously, making it an uncomfortable laugh at best.

The acting seems to be intentionally over-the-top. Emile Hirsch jumps around yelling like a crazy person the whole film, Thomas Haden Church revels in the slack-jawed yokel role, while Juno Temple’s childish sex kitten is played like a mentally-deficient Bambi.

Most interesting is Matthew McConaughey, who plays Joe, the glue holding this all together. Joe is the only smart one in the room and, as such, takes advantage of everyone else, playing them like pawns and reaping the benefits for himself.

It’s a caustic performance from McConaughey, who this year has proven he can actually act. He plays the role with deadly precision, his every move deliberate and calculated, creating a aura of menace around his character that you can’t take your eyes off of.

William Friedkin is a barely surviving relic of the New Hollywood era of the late-’60s, early-’70s. He hasn’t popped up much in, oh, 30 odd years, since one flop (the excellent Sorcerer, a remake of Wages of Fear) ruined his career. But before that he was known for directing The Exorcist and The French Connection and winning an Oscar for directing the latter.

He’s directed a handful of known films since then (Rules of Engagement, The Hunted, To Live and Die in L.A.) but this is the first time he has been taken seriously in some time.

I think in the end I wouldn’t say Killer Joe is a great film, but it sure is an interesting little thang. Along with The Paperboy, I think films like this challenge their audience over what they enjoy, what they can stand to watch, how strange they can take it. Killer Joe has a bit more humour to it than The Paperboy but I believe both films come across as very deliberate in their intentions.

As I say, I like lurid and have no problem being entertained by things that make me uncomfortable. Killer Joe made me uncomfortable and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about it. It’s a strange film, for sure, but worthwhile.

Killer Joe is available on home video now.

The Paperboy

The Paperboy (2012), directed by Lee Daniels

I have to say, I like a movie like The Paperboy.

It’s lurid and strange and dripping in sweat. It’s dirty and dark. It’s a neo-noir and exploitation film all wrapped into one. It’s really quite good.

The Paperboy is about a murder investigation by a group of newspaper men, two brothers and another writer. They’re trying to clear the name of a man they believe to have been wrongfully convicted for the murder of a much-hated sheriff.

To stir the pot, in comes Nicole Kidman’s Charlotte Bless, an oversexed beauty with a thing for inmates. She’s fallen in love with the convicted (John Cusack) by mail and wants to help the boys spring him. They start to dig and things get weird.

I feel like this is the kind of movie you’re either going to really enjoy, on at least some level, or you’re really going to reject. There’s not a lot of middle ground. I wouldn’t say I loved it, but I sure enjoyed the heck out of it, for the most part.

It’s not perfect. It has a middle section that gets a little lost, and the whole thing could have been tightened up. The problem is the movie has one of those plots where it starts off being about one thing and then half way through you realize it’s about something else, which is a pretty classic film noir move. But for modern audience, used to A leading to B leading to C, this can make it difficult to retain interest.

As my attention began to wane I actually gave myself a little internal pep talk to stay with it and focus on what the film wanted me to focus on, not on the murder plot that had gone sideways. And so I tried and by the end of the film I was once again pretty well wrapped up in it.

A lot of critics bashed the movie for being lurid, “sordid,” “ugly trash.”  I like this one: “a brutishly overwrought melodrama that plays like Tennessee Williams on absinthe.” That was from a negative review, but that sounds pretty good to me.

Rick Groen wrote “If the wallowing were deliberate, this might have been hugely funny,” which I think really epitomizes the sentiment of people who don’t get B-movies or exploitation films. I’m not claiming to be any hardcore aficionado, but I’m into that type of movie enough that I don’t need them to be funny for me to enjoy them.

I like campy B-movies, don’t get me wrong, even modern tongue-in-cheek homages like Machete or Hobo With a Shotgun. But to think that all B-movies have to be funny is to reject a whole history of lurid, dark, dirty filmmaking intended to shock, titillate, horrify and generally push boundaries. I understand that most people would and do reject that history, but I think it’s an important function of cinema. And I can appreciate a modern homage to that tradition.

Sometimes, not all the time, but sometimes, when I go to the movies, I want to see some raw, rough stuff. I want to be shocked and pushed. I don’t necessarily want a movie that sugarcoats things and gives me a pleasant little viewing experience. Or even a film that just takes me to the edge of that cliff but never jumps off. Sometimes I want a sweaty, strange, stinking hot, lurid, crime-filled mess of a movie to sink my teeth into.

The Paperboy is by no means perfect or any sort of a masterpiece but I would argue that it’s a quality bit of neo-noir and a pretty unique viewing experience for this day and age. What other movie would you see John Cusack and Nicole Kidman, er, pleasure themselves together in a prison? Or Kidman, er, help out Zac Efron with a jellyfish sting? Or Matthew McConaughey, er, get cut up taking part in some nefarious liaisons, shall we say?

And it’s not just that it has lurid content that makes The Paperboy some sort of great movie, it’s that it’s all shot so well and executed (no pun intended) with great, over-the-top performances and that you can feel that Florida summer swamp heat just burning off the screen. The film is dripping with raging sexuality; it’s sweaty and unravelled, it’s messy and dangerous. And most of all, it’s compelling as hell.

If that sounds like something you could get into then I recommend The Paperboy. If it’s not then I hear Wreck-It Ralph is not bad.

The Paperboy is in theatres now.