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Studios are putting most of their eggs in $100 million baskets these days, even as American independent filmmakers go hungry from lack of mainstream attention. But two of my favorite American indie writer-directors, Jeff Nichols and Ramin Bahrani, have new films with bigger stars than they've had before — films they hope will break through to wider audiences. The results, at least artistically, are impressive.
Nichols' first feature, Shotgun Stories, was a small masterpiece, the story of a blood feud between half-brothers that turns tragic. His second, Take Shelter, featured Shotgun star Michael Shannon as a man eaten alive by fear of losing his wife and child to apocalyptic forces. They're in very different keys, and Nichols' latest, Mud, is in still another. It's his Huckleberry Finn picture: It has a boy protagonist, it's set on the Mississippi River, and its narrative is both fluid and full of surprising twists.
The extraordinary Tye Sheridan plays 14-year-old Ellis. He lives on an Arkansas houseboat, where his mother is on the verge of leaving his father and selling the creekside home Ellis loves. One morning, he and a ruffian pal called Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) head to a river island on which Neckbone has spotted a boat in a tree, evidently thrown up there by a storm. It turns out there's a man living there, and his name is Mud.
I don't mean he's in such big trouble that his name is metaphorically Mud — although that's true. He's also called Mud, and he's played by Matthew McConaughey. He's grizzled, emaciated, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a gun tucked into his ever-tightening belt. I won't spell out why he's on that island. But he's desperate enough to need help.
And then there's McConaughey: Can anyone doubt anymore that he's a wonderful actor? As Mud, he gives his weird timing free rein, with the result that every line lands somewhere you don't expect.
The film finally turns on men's view of women, including Mud's sometime girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). See, these males have romantic macho fantasies — they want to save beleaguered females and live happily ever after. But the women here don't want to play their assigned parts. It's a hard lesson for Mud, and a harder one still for Ellis.
Mud is less eccentric than Nichols' other movies. It drifts into familiar territory when a team of bounty hunters comes after Mud and there's a conventional — although thrilling — shootout that brings in a chiseled Sam Shepard as Mud's sharpshooting surrogate father. But Nichols' emotional focus stays true, and his storytelling is hard to resist.
Ramin Bahrani's At Any Price might be a tougher sell — in part thanks to that terrible generic title. At first I was dispirited by the boring filmmaking; Bahrani made the spiky indies Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo, all told from the vantage of outsiders. The feel of this, by contrast, is that of the earnest regional hay-baling pictures of the '80s — the films that gave indies a bad name.
Dennis Quaid plays an unscrupulous farmer and entrepreneur who's under siege by an even less scrupulous global agribusiness concern — shown here suing into bankruptcy farmers who attempt to reuse its patented seeds. Zac Efron is his son, who'd rather race cars than join the family business. Despite those racing scenes, the first three-quarters of the film has no driving force, and Bahrani doesn't know how to direct his first star, Quaid, who overworks his face and pops his eyes to show how stricken the character is.
Then you see what Bahrani is really up to — setting a deceptive stage for something darker and more cynical, a moral tragedy rooted in the fear of losing one's business and home. Efron is shockingly good; he goes from teen dreamer to man imprisoned — and deadened — by fate. The movie has a hell of a sting in its tail.
There's no saying whether Mud or At Any Price will find audiences. But I like the chances of their directors. They're going mainstream on their own stubborn indie terms.