Is Less More in Ron Rash’s Above the Waterfall?

Above the Waterfall by Ron Rash

In Above the Waterfall, Les is a sheriff on the eve of retirement just trying to keep the peace…find some peace…in his small North Carolina mountain town. Becky is an environmentalist with the streak of a poet working as a park ranger and taking refuge in the natural beauty of her environs. While high-end resorts push natives (both human and animal) to the fringes, meth poisons the town’s less hardy residents. Ron Rash, while ever vivid in his descriptions of his Appalachian universe, attempts to go poetic minimalist here, alternating POV’s between Les’ fact-based fatalism and Becky’s yearning artistry. This attempt to balance timely sociopolitical commentary (meth came after the 2008 crash) with a timeless aestheticism (one wonders if Rash is working on an Appalachian Poetry side project) threads thin…the polar opposite of the epic gothic complexity of Serena.

Unlike the meth, much of the novel feels undercooked, as if it began as a short story that Rash later fleshed out, and those who enjoy his modern short stories will connect to this more than those who lean towards his period-piece and cross-generational novels (such as Serena, The Cove or his earlier One Foot in Eden). I fall into the latter group, and thus had mixed feelings for this effort, especially as it devolved into a not-so-compelling and seemingly manufactured “who-dun-it” concerning the poisoning of trout.

There were, of course, as is always the case with Rash, moments of genius that leave indelible marks.   Continue reading

Joe Knows Nothing New

Joe Nicolas Cage Tye Sheridan

Well, son, I reckon we oughta look for a better film.

A welcome return of Nicolas Cage Actor (as opposed to Nicolas Cage Lunatic Who Will Do Anything for a Paycheck) and another solid performance from Tye Sheridan (quick, get this kid in the Star Wars sequels…or something…so he can become the male Jennifer Lawrence and not keep getting typecast in Southern Fried Gothic Dramas) unfortunately don’t add up to much in David Gordon Green’s grim piece of poverty porn, Joe.  Cage plays a partially reformed loner who takes a shining to Sheridan’s hard-working drifter kid with an abusive alcoholic father – but both characters struggle to put their pasts (and tempers) behind them leading to inevitable anti-hero tragedy.

Poor Joe, it had a lot going for it.  Based on a fairly well-regarded novel of the same name by Larry Brown, it was to be a return to form for David Gordon Green – the former indie darling who had a nice (albeit unspectacular) streak going with George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow before selling out with mainstream stoner comedies.  Green recaptures some of that old magic in certain scenes (the film’s opening is especially effective, as are many of the Cage – Sheridan interactions) while populating the film with Malickian cinematography of some nameless (and tirelessly decrepit) Southern town and non-actors in supporting roles riffing in aimless scenes that lead nowhere.  There’s a fitting music score but also some poorly written and confusing voice-overs.  There’s chilling layered irony (the man who played Sheridan’s revolting father, Gary Poulter, was a homeless man who died shortly after filming from drowning in shallow waters while drunk) juxtaposed with senseless wallowing in the muck (did we really need to see that Lee Daniels-esque and dimwitted scene in the brothel that ended with a dog eating another dog?)  For all the naturalism Green tries to create, everything ends up feeling oddly forced and off-putting, even the “killing and planting trees as a metaphor for life” bit.  The characters remain undercooked in their overripe setting, and many of the interactions and subplots make little sense and only seem to exist to set-up the violence of the final act. Continue reading

His Name is Mud and it’s a Helluva Thing

Mud - in the trees

Look up there…it’s a helluva thing.

Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.

Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys. Continue reading

Anticipation in Ron Rash’s The Cove

Anticipation.

Our sweet-natured, sad-soul heroine Laurel anticipating her life to begin after a string of bad luck toiling away in the gloaming of the titular cove. Waiting for love to find her.

Hank, Laurel’s brother who has returned home from Europe after losing his hand, newly betrothed and anticipating a fresh life to begin outside of the shadow of his cursed homestead.

The handsome flute-playing mute named Walter who finds his way into the cove and into Laurel’s heart always looking over his shoulder anticipating his good luck to run out and his past (and the authorities) to catch up to him.

A nation anticipating their native sons to return from a war-torn Europe to safer shores.

The reader anticipating something…anything…interesting to happen in Ron Rash’s lukewarm but evocative Southern-spun WWI-era gothic romance. Don’t worry…it does…eventually.

It’s telling that Rash would follow-up his masterpiece, Serena, with a novel drenched in atmosphere and taking place in a gloomy hollow, eternally in the shadows of the Appalachian mountains (the same mountains where in Serena the Pemberton timber empire loomed ominously and supreme) which cast darkness on the hearts of the inhabitants there. It’s almost as if Serena Pemberton is casting the greatest shadow, as Rash will never be able to conjure a character to match her nor can one imagine a follow-up novel that could scale the same mythic heights. Continue reading