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.

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), directed by Sean Durkin

I’ve been dying to see this movie ever since it came out in the fall but this has been my first chance. It’s probably fallen under most people’s radar but I love John Hawkes and I also love quiet, slowly paced films involving people with Southern accents (hence my Terrence Malick, David Gordon Green and Jeff Nichols obsessions). Also, for some reason (don’t judge me), I find cults fascinating. This movie is three for three so far.

It stars The Other Olsen Sister (Elizabeth Olsen) as a young woman who is taken in by and ultimately flees from a cult. It opens with the fleeing and the movie is one part her struggle adjusting to “normal” life while living with her sister and her husband and one part flashbacks to her experiences with the cult.

And this ain’t your regular old back-to-the-land, thank ya Geesus cult. It’s not even just a creepy old dudes preying on impressionable young women cult either. Don’t get me wrong, it is those, but it goes deeper then that. Think Manson. Think Jonestown. That sort of thing.

But I get where Martha (Marcy) is coming from when she gets sucked into the group. I would probably follow John Hawkes into anything too. Do I ever love that man. I am constantly hounding Hollywood (by, you know, yelling at my tv and the internet) to put John Hawkes in every movie they make. They’ve started to listen to me and he has been in a lot lately, but still: more, more. The Surrogate blew minds at Sundance this year, so that’s one to look out for. And anyone who hasn’t seen Winter’s Bone needs to. Now.

I don’t know what it is about him. He just has so much expression in his face and a certain maturity and understanding in the way he puts forward a character. And he’s versatile. Sometimes I want him to be my awesome Uncle and other times, as in this movie, he just scares the hell out of me. Oh, and PS John Hawkes, you need to play Rick Danko in a biopic of The Band. Seriously.

But the movie. Right. I wasn’t as taken with Martha Marcy May Marlene as I thought I would be but I have the suspicion that it would grow on me with future viewings. And maybe We Need to Talk About Kevin just took up all the appreciation for evil I had for the week.

This is a very well made movie, with striking performances, fabulously affective yet subtle cinematography and subject matter that couldn’t be juicier. And yet something held me back. It might have been Olsen, who I never quite believed and didn’t seem to have much range beyond dozy and confused. I mean, that was her character I realize, but I never got a sense of that urge for meaning or community that draws people into these cults. She just seemed so blank.

Also I think expectation entered into it. I’ve watched docs on Jonestown before and have read things here and there about cults. I know how they work and what they get up to. I was far more interested in learning about how Martha integrates back into normal life, or how the whole situation ends up playing out. And we never get that. In fact for an almost better depiction of how cults work try to hunt down the Canadian film Ticket to Heaven (or watch it on YouTube!). It’s dated but truly insightful.

So I felt like I’d seen everything in Martha Marcy May Marlene before. And just when it got to something that I was interested in…it ended. I had trouble with the end because that was what I cared about, what happens to Martha, not what had happened to Martha, because that seemed obvious.

The film is masterfully made, there is no doubt. What I had some resistance too was the story, which didn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to watch it again now that I have no expectations to focus on Hawkes’ performance and the look of the film, and maybe, knowing how it ends, find a better understanding of what it was going for and why. For now though Martha Marcy May Marlene feels half-finished.

Martha Marcy May Marlene is available on DVD and Blu-ray.