A Movie Called Mud

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Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.


Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.



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"The Help" Deserves the Buzz

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The Help is the film everyone has been talking about this week. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Kathryn Stockett, it has been eagerly awaited by book club members and sensitive readers nationwide since it was published two years ago. The film provides an intimate look at the often-demeaning relationship between white women in Mississippi and the black maids who served them during the turbulent 1960s.

During this time, women up north were beginning to recognize the vast career options available to them. But in the Deep South, women were still staying at home with their children, joining the Junior League, hosting bridge clubs, and criticizing "the help" — and each other. In this story, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the "queen bee" whose opinion matters to everyone, black or white. She controls the social life of the town by voicing her opinions firmly and then leads the shunning of anyone who dares to disagree with her. Her kind of female has always existed, of course, and not just in the South. She has been immortalized in such films as The Women and Mean Girls, and can still be found controlling social groups, PTA meetings, cheerleading squads, and even board rooms, with a raised eyebrow and a withering look. No one likes her, but no one dares to cross her.

In the story, Hilly has been leading her group of friends since grade school. All of them are now married with children, except Skeeter (Emma Stone), who has chosen to finish college and wants to become a writer. She lands a job at the local newspaper as an advice columnist answering questions about house cleaning. Ironically, of course, Skeeter has never polished a spoon or scrubbed a bathtub ring in her life. So she turns to "the help" for help, in the person of Aibileen (Viola Davis), her friend Elizabeth's maid. Eventually she convinces Aibileen and a dozen other maids to share their stories, and a book is born.

As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly.

Aibileen is what Skeeter ought to be. Like many white college graduates, Skeeter simply "wants to be a writer." She doesn't have a burning topic just itching to come out. She wants the title of "writer" as much as she wants the occupation. When she applies for a job at Harper & Row, the editor (Mary Steenburgen) tells her, "Write about something that disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else." Skeeter looks for a topic that will allow her to become a writer, rather than using her writing to expose a problem she cares deeply about. Aibileen, by contrast, is simply a writer. She writes every night for an hour or two. She writes what is in her soul. She writes her prayers.

In many ways, Viola Davis as Aibileen carries the show and at the same time embodies the central conflict of the story. I say this because, although Davis is one of the finest actors in Hollywood, with an Oscar to her credit, you will seldom see that accolade in print without the modifier "black actress." As a nation we are proud of how far we have come in terms of civil rights: our schools and neighborhoods are fully integrated. We have a black president in the White House. But we still notice racial differences and often act accordingly. I would love to ask Davis how she feels about the roles she has been offered.

Equally impressive is Octavia Spencer as Aibileen's best friend, Minny Jackson, an outspoken maid who has lost so many jobs because of her sassy back talk that she now works for the last woman in town who will hire her — Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), who is shunned by the ladies because of her "white trash" background. Celia doesn't know the rules of maid-employer relationships. Ironically, Minny teaches Celia the boundaries she and the other maids are trying to expose with Skeeter’s book. Spencer's large liquid eyes alternately shine with sharp-witted laughter and melt into pain-filled tears. If Aibileen is the soul of this black community, Minny is its heart.

Having read the book, I wasn't pleased to learn that the beautiful Emma Stone had been cast as the tall, skinny, unattractive Skeeter, since her gangly appearance is such an important part of her character. But somehow Stone manages to look like a plain Jane in this film — her eyes are too big, her lips are too thin, her hair is too curly, and her face is too pale. In short, she is perfect.

Despite having grown up in Jackson, Skeeter really doesn't fit in with her snooty friends. She is disturbed by Hilly's insistence that Elizabeth install a separate bathroom for Aibileen. In fact, Hilly wants a law mandating separate facilities in private homes, "for the prevention of disease." This prompts Skeeter to examine the way maids are treated by the women who employ them. "Colored women raise white children, and twenty years later these white children become the boss," she muses. "When do we change from loving them to hating them?" Aibileen observes the same dilemma: "I want to stop that moment coming — and it come in ever white child's life — when they start to think that colored folks ain't as good as whites."

Toilets, and the material that goes into them, become the strongest recurrent image in this film. From diapers and potty training to vomiting and pranks, toilets are a symbol for what was wrong with the "separate but equal" policy in the south. The facilities were separate, but they most assuredly were not equal. Aibileen's bathroom is a plywood closet located in a corner of the garage with a bare bulb hanging from a wire, and toilet paper resting on a bare 2x4. The symbol, which emphasizes how badly blacks could be treated by whites in those days, provides moments of both shame and laughter.

However, the film misses the richer, darker, and more sinister tone that underlies the book. For black women to write about their employers was no joke, and the book makes it clear that its women are risking real dangers when they decide to tell the truth. Permanent job loss, physical violence, and even jail are real threats in a society where the mere accusation of a crime can lead to vigilante justice with lifetime consequences. By showing this clearly, the book gains a tension and suspense that is missing from the film.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood?

Strangely, I found it more difficult to enter the minds and lives of the maids while watching the film than I did while reading the book. The story is told through the three voices of Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter, who narrate alternating sections of the book. These voices are strong and rich, and I could enter their worlds, empathizing with their experiences vicariously. In the film, however, I was merely an observer. I often felt defensive, rather than empathetic, about what I was seeing, as though I were somehow responsible for the actions of those women long ago, simply because I am white. If we learn anything from our battle for civil rights, however, it is that each person should be judged individually, and not collectively as part of a race.

The most important question asked by The Help is this: how did these southern women go from loving the black maids who reared them as children to degrading them in adulthood? Stockett, who was reared in Mississippi by a black maid whom she says she loved, suggests that they learned it from their mothers, by example as well as by instruction. To quote Oscar Hammerstein in South Pacific, racism "has to be carefully taught." But books like this also suggest that children can be carefully taught not to be judgmental. Every day Aibileen tells Elizabeth's little girl, "You is smart. You is kind. You is important." She says nothing about little Mae Mobley's appearance, good or bad. Knowing that she will likely be fired or retired before Mae Mobley reaches her teen years, Aibileen hopes desperately that these words will be enough.

As is often the case, the film is good, but the book is so much better. Don't take a short cut this time. Read The Help first, and then see the movie. You will enjoy both so much more if you do it that way.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Help," directed by Tate Taylor. Dreamworks, 2011, 137 minutes.



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