This year’s Cannes competition included five US films, an unusually high number. And their similarities are striking: they all take on popular genres, such as film noir and gangster film, bestselling and award-winning American books, and American regions, including New England and, especially, the South. Whether this means the selection jury had a particular idea of American-ness in mind or their selection reflects a trend in American filmmaking may become clearer over time.
Like The Paperboy, Jeff Nichols’ Mud is set in the South. During his press conference at Cannes, the director cited Mark Twain’s writing about the Mississippi as an inspiration. This becomes clear in the film’s opening moments, as young Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who appeared in last year’s Palme d’Or winner, The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a flamboyant stranger on an island on the Mississippi river. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) asks them to help him escape an army of bounty hunters and reunite with his ex-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
At the same time, Ellis’ mother wants to move to town, which means the family’s boathouse is set to be dismantled. This pair of stories, contrived as them sound, are less compelling than Mud‘s long takes of the river and detailed scenes showing craw-fishers in old-fashioned diving gear, images that extol Southern traditions and gorgeous settings. The film’s visual poetry helps us to understand the boy’s desperation at the prospect of losing his familiar world.
Mud embodies part of that world, his chipped tooth portending trouble, but his good ol’ boy’s charisma and storytelling quite irresistible. He’s also devoted to Juniper, demonstrated by the fact that he’s killed one of her abusive boyfriends in order to protect her. When the murdered man’s ruthless father and brother come to town to hunt him down. Ellis determines to help out his new friend, that is, until he realizes that the love between Mud and Juniper is not as timeless as Mud makes it sound. A lowkey and original mix of genres, Mud combines coming-of-age themes, some antic action, and a meditation on a disappearing way of life.
Lawless takes another tack. Rather than featuring the lyrical visual digressions, it stays focused on gangsters in a small town in Virginia during Prohibition and the Great Depression. Based on The Wettest County in the World, a fictionalized memoir by one of three Bondurant brothers, it begins as they’re running a small-time bootlegging operation and refuse to pay a cut to corrupt Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce).
Like so many gangster movies, this one makes its criminal heroes relatively sympathetic by pitting them against a broadly drawn villain: Rakes’ supercilious demeanor, waxy haircut, and slick city suit make him look instantly unpleasant. In the face of this obstacle, the brothers begin to argue. The older Bondurants, Jack (Shia LaBeouf) and Forrest (Tom Hardy), want stick to proven production methods. The youngest, Howard (Jason Clarke), not nearly as tough but more enterprising, wants to modernize the moonshine equipment and expand to new illegal markets.
This conflict is somewhat reconciled when Howard impresses his brothers by making a deal with notorious gangster Floyd Banner (Gary Oldman). But this development hardly slows down Rakes and his team, who proceed to terrorize the brothers, their friends, including Howard’s mechanical genius partner Cricket (Dane DeHaan), and their wives and girlfriends, including Bertha (Mia Wawikowska) and Maggi (Jessica Chastain). The ensuing bloodshed is less glorious than painful, leading to a decidedly nostalgic denouement.
The fact that Lawless and Mud made it into Cannes competition suggests a growing influence of U.S. independent cinema, a notion underlined by Beasts of the Southern Wild‘s winning of the Camera d’Or and last year’s award of the Palme d’Or to Tree of Life. Of all their similarities, the most notable may be be that this year’s American films refuse to draw a plain boundary between commercial product and art films. Going to Cannes is, increasingly, a route to US theaters.