Two recent movies—Jeff Nichols' Mud and Robert Redford's The Company You Keep—have accused criminals as their protagonists, fleeing retribution. Both are thoughtful, interesting films, but only one enters the realm of cinematic art.
The Company You Keep is a retrospective on the era of Students for a Democratic Society and the Weathermen, as well as a meditation on journalistic ethics. It begins with the arrest of Sharon Solarz (Susan Sarandon), a former student radical living under an alias, at a gas station in upstate New York. The FBI has sought Solarz for more than three decades in connection with a Michigan bank robbery in which a security guard was killed.
Albany newspaper editor Ray Fuller (Stanley Tucci), irked that a national story broke in his town without his paper having the scoop, orders reporter Ben Shepard (Shia LaBoeuf) to follow up. Calling in a favor from his ex-girlfriend, FBI agent Diana (Anna Kendrick), Shepard gets an interview with Solarz, only to find her less than forthcoming. Soon, however, Shepard's attention is drawn to Jim Grant (Redford), a recently widowed local attorney with an 11-year-old daughter. Grant refused to defend Solarz, and Shepard wants to know why. A few days' digging reveals the reason: Grant is really Nick Sloan, former member of the Weather Underground and one of Solarz's alleged accomplices in the robbery.
The Company You Keep becomes a chase movie at this point. Leaving his daughter with his younger brother Daniel (Chris Cooper), Sloan flees cross-country, pursued by Shepard and by humorless FBI agent Cornelius (Terrence Howard, doing what he can with a one-note role). Sloan contacts various people from his past, who generally are less than happy to see him. Shepard, meanwhile, must decide whether he wants to be a famous reporter or a good person. The script leaves him no middle ground.
Most of The Company You Keep consists of Sloan and Shepard's encounters with a series of characters who hold various pieces of the story's puzzle. The actors who play them are a thespian Who's Who of the last forty years: Julie Christie, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Richard Jenkins, Sam Elliott, Brit Marling. These characters, and the roles they play in the story, hold our interest. Yet The Company You Keep never builds up any real excitement. The story is constructed like a Miss Marple-Hercule Poirot mystery, with each witness or suspect trotted out in sequence to tell his or her part of the tale. No real tension builds up between the actors, and the consideration of the political and ethical issues in play remains shallow. Because of this, the plot's payoff is only moderately satisfying.
Beginning with his multiple-Oscar-winning first film, Ordinary People, Redford has always been a careful, meticulous director, with every detail in its proper place. His professionalism is admirable, but in a film such as The Company You Keep, it leeches out any sense of danger, which is vital to a film of this kind. We're happy to see all these wonderful actors, and Redford's sense of structure keep the film going. But The Company You Keep is more agreeable than exciting in the end.
A film that builds intense excitement, despite its slow, deliberate pace, is Mud, the third feature film by Nichols. Whereas The Company You Keep leads us on an American odyssey, Mud concentrates on one particular American place that is atmospheric to the point of being hypnotic. As he did with his previous film, Take Shelter, Nichols keeps us mesmerized throughout.
Best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are fourteen-year-olds living on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi. One day Ellis and Neckbone set out in their little motorboat for an island in the middle of the river. They find what they heard was there: a yacht, battered but still intact, perched at the top of the trees where a storm carried it. In a frenzy of joyous discovery, they claim the yacht for their own, but momentarily they discover signs that someone is living in it.
Soon they find that someone, and his name, literally, is Mud. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is a shaggy, snaggle-toothed drifter hiding out on the island from the law and the vengeful family of the man he says he killed. He killed the man, he tells the boys, to protect Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the great love of his life, whom he expects to join him on the island and run away with him. Mud persuades the boys to help him get the yacht out of the trees, help him make it river-worthy again, bring him food and cigarettes, and—above all—to get the message to Juniper that he is waiting for her.
Neckbone has reservations about Mud, but Ellis is entranced by the air of swashbuckling romance that emanates from him. He becomes Mud's willing accomplice, running messages not only to Juniper but also to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), the old river rat with a mysterious past who knows Mud's story almost better than Mud does.
Ellis is a boy in need of a hero. The marriage of his father Junior (Ray McKinnon) and mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) is falling apart. Compounding the pain, federal regulations demand that, if Junior and Mary Lee are divorced, they and Ellis must leave their houseboat, the only home Ellis has ever known. Further disturbing Ellis is May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), the slightly older girl whom he imagines as his Juniper. Nichols' screenplay vividly shows Ellis' disillusionment when neither Mud, nor Juniper, nor May Pearl turns out to be quite what he thought they were. But that's a drop in the river compared with what happens when the murdered man's vengeful brother (Paul Sparks) and father (Joe Don Baker) show up.
If there's a director today who specializes in Southern Gothic, it is Jeff Nichols. They are leisurely and atmospheric, developing a slow, steady sense of unease and dread. Shotgun Stories, his first film, was a revenge drama set in Arkansas about two sets of feuding half-brothers—one abandoned by their father, the other the inheritors of his substantial estate. Take Shelter, his second film, was set in northern Ohio, but the Southern Gothic label still fits. Curtis (Michael Shannon), a road construction worker with a family history of schizophrenia, is beset by terrifying visions that persuade him a cataclysmic tornado is about to wipe out his town. Risking his job and his marriage, Curtis spends all his savings, including the money for his deaf daughter's ear operation, and borrows equipment from work to build a tornado shelter next to his house. Take Shelter is a masterpiece of slow-building suspense, enhanced greatly by Shannon's masterful performance as a man whose sanity remains in question throughout the film.
Take Shelter was my personal choice as the best film of 2011. Mud misses that level of achievement, but just barely. Helped by the gorgeous work of his usual photographer, Adam Stone, Nichols creates a mesmerizing portrait of a singular place, enveloping us like the branches of the weeping willows on the riverbanks. The film's pace, like that of Shotgun Stories, is a little too stately in places, but otherwise it is a thoroughly engaging work by a writer-director who knows both the South and its literary traditions. (Naming one of the characters "Tom Blankenship" was, of course, a pointed nod to Mark Twain.)
Nichols is an outstanding director of actors, and Mud is beautifully acted down to the smallest bit part. (Shannon, the star of Shotgun Stories as well as Take Shelter, has a small part in Mud, playing Neckbone's scapegrace uncle.) Matthew McConaughey has had an impressive run of performances recently, and Mud may well be his best role to date. It is hard to imagine another actor who could so perfectly capture Mud's combination of glamor, danger, and innocence. McConaughey and Nichols make it clear that Mud, for all his hard experiences in the past, is no more mature than Ellis or Neckbone. He's a Huck Finn who never grew up.
Among the other actors, Sam Shepard is both enigmatic and powerful as Tom Blankenship. But the performer you will remember most—even more than McConaughey—is Tye Sheridan as Ellis. Poised at the juncture of boyhood and manhood, Sheridan makes Ellis' aspirations and disillusionments touchingly real.
Mud is a movie that recalls, in appropriate and thrilling ways, the entire history of Southern fiction—from Twain to Faulkner to Flannery O'Connor to Cormac McCarthy. If, in the end, Nichols is kinder to his main characters than these authors generally were, it comes more as relief than as disappointment.