USA (130 mi) 2012 d: Jeff Nichols
In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.
—from Mark Twain’s Autobiography, initially published in 1924, his description of childhood friend Tom Blankenship, used as the inspiration for the character Huck Finn, the real-life son of a sawmill laborer and sometime drunkard named Woodson Blankenship, who lived in a “ramshackle” house near the Mississippi River behind the house where Twain grew up in Hannibal, Missouri
Jeff Nichols has become what we all hoped indie director David Gordon Green would become before he developed a taste for making mainstream movies, a fiercely independent artist firmly rooted into the rural American soil of his films, finding unconventional stories through people living on the edge. Like Green, Nichols is also a graduate of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where much of this resembles the Southern Gothic look of the dilapidated rural poor in Green’s UNDERTOW (2004), which happened to be produced by Terrence Malick, filming his first and third films in his home state of Arkansas while also sharing Green’s musical composer, David Wingo, with a healthy dose of the alternative country band Lucero thrown in, as the front man of the group, Ben Nichols, is the director’s brother. Nichols also borrows the youngest brother, Tye Sheridan, from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), who is nothing short of brilliant in the lead role of only his second film, while also using Malick’s producer, Sarah Green. Sheridan will, interestingly enough, be working with David Gordon Green, and also Nicolas Cage playing an ex-con (yes, it's a stretch), in his next film Joe (2013). The other major influence on the film is Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, especially the use of the river, both as a mystical symbol of freedom, but it also provides a colorful setting in this small Arkansas town, a portrait of reality in the everyday lives of people trying to make a living off of it. From the outset, the river, as in Huckleberry Finn, is fraught with danger, but also adventure, where two best friend 14-year old boys, Tye as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, live with their families working the river and spend their free time on Ellis’s boat exploring the nearby tributaries of the Mississippi River, never actually venturing to the Mississippi itself, seen looming ominously off in the distance.
While exploring a seemingly deserted island, they discover a house boat stuck in the upper branches of a tree, as if left there by a flood. Inside the boat, they discover pornographic magazines, but also a current food supply, suggesting someone’s already living there. Running back to their boat, they find a filthy, ragged looking man standing beside it fishing, introducing himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in a friendly and non-threatening manner, telling them he’s there waiting on the island for someone. The more they learn about this guy, the more curious Ellis grows, like an unraveling adventure story, as his own life is a mess, with his parents splitting up and getting a divorce, where afterwards the government will likely take their family’s boathouse on the river, while Neckbone, who lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), is more suspicious. To them, Mud is an enigma, a man seemingly living by his wits out in the wild that needs some help, claiming he’s trying to reunite with his lost love, the girl of his dreams, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud asks the boys to help bring him food and supplies, claiming he needs to fix up the boat to make their getaway, but if they help, he’ll give Neckbone the gun he keeps tucked into the back of his pants. Even after finding out Mud killed a man that was physically abusing Juniper, tracking him down in the state of Texas and shooting him, where he’s now an outlaw and a wanted man, this notion of manly protection and true love captivates the imagination of Ellis, whose own home life is in turmoil, with his parents giving up on love and barely speaking, while at the same time he meets an older girl in town, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), quickly grabbing her attention when he sees her getting hassled on the street and punches a guy that was giving her trouble, a guy several years older. Through Mud, Ellis identifies with the idea of a man standing up for love, and even fighting for it, if necessary.
One of the better indie films seen in almost a year, though told fairly straightforwardly like a family drama, Nichols is an intelligent filmmaker with a beautifully poetic, naturalistic style, where all the performances are perfectly understated, especially Sheridan as Ellis, who couldn’t be more compelling, as he risks quite a bit for a man he barely knows, quickly entering a grown up world without really understanding how it works. When he discovers Juniper is living in a motel near a local Piggly Wiggly grocery store, Mud has him deliver her a message, where the atmospheric mood of the film establishes the mindset and influences the action of the film, as Ellis rushes headlong into the developing fray, unaware of the traps being set by the family of the killed man, where Joe Don Baker, Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser in WALKING TALL (1973) and out of the public eye for years, is the creepy family patriarch. At the same time, none other than Sam Shepard is the mysterious loner living across the river from Ellis, curiously enough named Tom Blankenship, Twain’s childhood friend, who helps create a clearer picture of Mud, as he’s the closest thing to being his father. But knowing Juniper is in the picture, Tom senses little can become of it except more trouble, suggesting that’s the truth of the matter, that she finds one ornery bastard after another just so Mud will beat the living crap out of him, taking some peculiar satisfaction out of that while Mud ends up hiding out in the middle of nowhere with the wrath of God waiting for him. It’s all too confounding for Ellis, who believes they really love each other, which is the reason he’s risking his neck for the guy, as otherwise all the love has dried up in his life, where even his own father (Ray McKinnon) urges him not to place his trust in it. This is not your typical coming-of-age tale, where these two kids are wise beyond their years, shown with a rarely seen complexity and grace, but still Ellis’s child’s eye view appropriately mixes the confusion about adult relationships with his own painfully naïve experiences with girls, where the visual poetry of the film helps express the underlying desperation he feels in witnessing the only world he knows slowly disappear. Nichols has become one of the most assured indie directors working today, where perhaps the Palme D’Or success at Cannes of Malick’s 2011 Top Ten Films of the Year #1 The Tree of Life and Benh Zeitlin’s Sundance winner 2012 Top Ten List #1 Beasts of the Southern Wild have spurred a resurgence in American independent cinema, where even David Gordon Green may be attempting to return to his Southern Gothic roots.