When it comes to Arkansas, people seem to automatically think of two things. Arkansas is the former home of Bill and Hillary Clinton and it’s also the state that accused three teenage boys of committing horrific acts of murder, largely on the basis of the fact that one of the boys used to dress in black and listen to heavy metal music. Between the state’s largely rural image and repeat showings of Paradise Lost on HBO, Arkansas does not exactly have the best reputation.
Myself, I have a lot of childhood memories of Arkansas. Some of them are good and some of them aren’t so good. My grandmother lived in Fort Smith so, even when my family was living in another state, we would still always find the time to come visit her every summer. As well, I had (and still have) cousins spread out all over the state. Almost every road trip that I’ve ever taken has involved at least a few stops in Arkansas. When I think about Arkansas, I don’t think about the Clintons or Damien Echols. Instead, to me, Arkansas is where I used to get excited whenever I saw we were approaching grandma’s house and where my mom once grabbed me right before I stepped on a snake that was hidden in the high grass that surrounded my cousin’s farm.
As often as I visited Arkansas while I was growing up, I also actually lived there twice. I don’t remember the first time, because I was only two years old at the time, but my family spent 3 months living in Ft. Smith before going back to Texas. Then five years later, we returned to Arkansas and, over the course of 19 months, we lived in Texarkana, Fouke, Van Buren, North Little Rock, and, finally, Ft. Smith once again.
Originally, for Arkansas, I was planning on reviewing The Legend of Boggy Creek, a 1974 psuedo-documentary that deals with a bigfoot-like creature that was said to live near the town of Fouke. It made perfect sense as not only was The Legend of Boggy Creek filmed in Arkansas but it was produced by an Arkansan as well. It remains one of the most financially successful independent films of all time and, because it’s presented as being a documentary, it features authentic Arkansans in the cast. Even more importantly, my family actually lived in Fouke from August of ’93 to May of ’94. I’ve been down to Boggy Creek! (Though, to the best of my memory, the monster never made an appearance while we were living in Fouke.)
But then I thought about it and something occurred to me. The Legend of Boggy Creek is not that good of a movie. I watched it a few weeks ago and, once I got passed the fact that it was filmed in a town that I have vague memories of living in back when I was seven years old, I found the film itself to be almost unbearably dull.
So, instead of unleashing my snark on a 40 year-old exploitation film, I’m going to use this opportunity to recommend another film that was shot in Arkansas. This film, however, was one of the best films of 2013. It’s a film that, if you haven’t watched it yet, you owe it to yourself to see.
It’s a film called Mud.
Directed by Jeff Nichols (who previously gave us the excellent Take Shelter), Mud takes place in the town of DeWitt, Arkansas. Two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) spend their days going up and down the Arkansas River. Ellis, the more introspective of the two, dreams of escaping his homelife with an abusive father (Ray McKinnon) and a compliant mother (Sarah Paulson). Quietly watching over the two boys is Tom (Sam Shepard), an enigmatic older man who lives across the river from Ellis’s family.
One day, Ellis and Neckbone come across a mysterious man living on a small island. The man’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and he tells them that he’s waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Whitherspoon). Mud explains that he killed a man who once pushed her down a flight of stairs while she was pregnant. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help Mud, secretly supplying him with food and delivering notes from him to Juniper.
However, the father (Joe Don Baker) of the man who Mud killed has arrived in town as well. He’s brought an army of mercenaries with him and, each morning, he gathers them together for a quick prayer and then sends them out to track down and kill Mud…
Mud is a wonderful film, one that is full of visually striking images and excellent performances. (If Dallas Buyers Club hadn’t come out later that same year, Matthew McConaughey could have just as easily been nominated for his charismatic and sympathetic performance here.) Even more importantly, the film is full of authentic local culture and color. If, decades from now, someone asked me what Arkansas was like in the early 21st Century, Mud is the film that I would show them.
Much as how Richard Linklater can capture Texas in a way that a non-Texan never could, Mud is fortunate to have been directed by a native of Arkansas. Watching Mud, it quickly becomes obvious that Jeff Nichols knows and understands Arkansas and, as such, he presents an honest portrait of the state.
Every state should hope to inspire a film as well-made and entertaining as Mud.