The South on Screen - Part Two
Posted on: 11/09/2014
In honour of Joe, screening until Tuesday 16 September, we continue our own adventure through the South on screen. Part One of our journey explored the Classics and Race Relations. Here, we take a look at Southern Gothic, Contemporary Classics and the South as represented on television.
The claustrophobia and horror of European gothic seemed a natural translation for writers portraying the Southern landscape, as did an obsession with religious rites and grotesque characters. There are the obvious adaptations of style and tone like Neil Jordon’s Interview with the Vampire (1994), but the more subtle and strange variations are worth late-night viewing.
Okay, so there are no vampires in John Boorman’s tale of city slickers on a weekend canoe trip through the Georgian wilderness and it’s not incredibly subtle. The menace, however, hangs as thick as the mists of the river and the Phantom’s dreaded organ is out-chilled by the bony twangs of duelling banjos.
The uncanny and abnormal is on full display in the nameless, inbred mountain men that pursue the film’s four businessmen protagonists down the rapids. More so than perhaps any other film, Deliverance cemented the South as a sinister, uncivilised wilderness, where malevolence is hereditary and only overcome through machismo.
Its exploration of the nature of man may seem obvious to contemporary audiences, but one thing’s for sure – you don’t want to kneel for prayer in the Georgian backwoods.
Angel Heart (1987)
Film noir also translates well down South, and Alan Parker’s Angel Heart is the perfect potion of Southern Gothic and hardboiled, shaken up by the director’s stylish excesses and symbolism. Greasy NYC private eye Harry Angel (Mickey Rourke) sinks into the sweltering, sensual Louisiana backwaters in search of a missing singer, sent by the cryptic, Mephistophelian Louis Cyphre (Robert De Niro).
The further Angel descends into his investigation, the closer he is to the bayou inferno. From blood-splattered Harlem churches to fevered jazz clubs, sacrificial black masses and incestuous (also bloody) sex, Angel Heart fries up the Faustian tradition and spices it with voodoo and occultism.
It sounds trashy (and it is), but Roger Ebert gave it three-and-a-half stars out of four, commenting that "Angel Heart is a thriller and a horror movie, but most of all it’s an exuberant exercise in style, in which Parker and his actors have fun taking it to the limit".
Also see: Cape Fear (1991), Southern Comfort (1981), Wise Blood (1971)
The South never stops luring filmmakers into its sick heart. Even Tarantino tried his hand recently with Django Unchained (2012), while Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy (2012) snuck in besides the likes of O Brother, Where Are Thou? (2000) and Crazy Heart (2009).
You want Southern? You need McConaughey. Not only does he star in Jeff Nichols’ Mud as the titular character, he’s in almost every film set in the South recently made – The Paper Boy, Killer Joe (2011) and Dallas Buyers Club (2013). The Texan native doesn’t need to rely on his charming accent anymore; these days he can actually act.
In Mud, trust and innocence are tested when two young boys (Joe’s Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) encounter McConaughey’s fugitive living in their secret hideaway. Poetic, kind and charismatic, Mud convinces the kids to help him survive while he looks for his girlfriend and the cops look for him. The renegade living amongst the landscape, Mud harks back to the Southern tradition of rebellion, and can be seen to symbolically carry the spirit of the Confederacy in pariah status.
Perfectly mixing a coming-of-age story with the dubious integrity of antiheroes intrinsic to the South, Mud was quietly acclaimed and unfortunately overlooked.
Rectify that by taking a look (if you haven't already).
Winter’s Bone (2010)
The Ozarks aren’t technically in the South, but they feature predominantly in the literature that has inspired almost every film in this article. Based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name, Debra Granik's Winter’s Bone introduced the world to Jennifer Lawrence and earned the young actor her first Academy Award® nomination for Best Actress.
Seventeen-year-old Ree Dolly (Lawrence) juggles supporting her mentally ill mother and younger siblings while living in abject poverty (another staple of the South). With her father, Jessup, out on bail for manufacturing meth, the Sheriff informs Ree that her family will lose their house if Jessup doesn’t show up for court. Thus begins the odyssey for the teenager into the hillbilly heart of darkness, which The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw says "builds inexorably through successive stages of tension to an extraordinary finale of horror: a white-trash nightmare, featuring a chainsaw and a horrible visit to a moonlit lake".
Also see: Killer Joe, Dallas Buyers Club, The Paper Boy
The small screen is perfectly suited to the languid, sensual storytelling of the South. Two shows based in the rusted Bible Belt have already cemented their place in the new Golden Era of television.
Rectify (2013- )
The first original series produced by SundanceTV, Rectify echoes the notorious case of the West Memphis Three. After 19 years on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend, Daniel Holden (Aden Young) is released from prison after DNA evidence overturns the verdict from his original trial.
Moody and tense, this slow burner follows Holden’s attempts to reclaim his life amidst a sea of distrust and lingering suspicion, with each hour unfolding with a restraint and depth that makes it mesmerising.
As The Daily Beast says, "With Rectify, [creator Ray] McKinnon creates a world of light and darkness, and of heaven and hell, one that exerts a powerful gravity from which it is impossible to escape."
True Detective (2014 - )
From the bawdy, hypnotic opening credits of coal fumes, spiked heels and half-missing heads, you know you’re entering the sinister South with True Detective. This year’s ‘It’ show not only electrifies a tired, almost clichéd storyline (institutionalised, occult kid killing really is old hat) to the point where it feels completely new, but it mixes noir and horror with backwoods surrealism and divine nihilism.
Enough has been said of the incredible writing, philosophical headfucks and stellar performances from Matthew McConaughey (Rust Cohle) and Woody Harrelson (Marty Hart), but the work of Australian cinematographer Adam Arkapaw (Snowtown, Animal Kingdom) deserves attention.
Arkapaw’s stunning work perfectly accompanies the depth of Nic Pizzolatto’s script. When Rust says of the landscape, "I get a bad taste in my mouth out here... aluminum... ash... like you can smell a psychosphere", Arkapaw assures we taste the same sensation from the screen. Learn more about some of the best shots in the series in this article by Vulture, and luxuriate in this amazing 6-minute single-take tracking shot.
- Matt Millikan, Web Marketing Coordinator
Joe screens until Tuesday 16 September, 2014.comments powered by Disqus
Matthew McConaughey in True Detective (2014 - )