For over a decade director Jefferson Moneo has been working up to making his first feature, Big Muddy. In 2011 the short-film version of Big Muddy premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. Fast forward three years and the film has made its feature-length debut at TIFF.
Big Muddy is an effective contemporary noir with a distinctively Midwest-Canadian cadence. Flashes of David Lynch pop in and out, drawing vague comparisons to Wild at Heart (1990), particularly in the character of Buford Carver a malevolent creep dressed in gentlemen’s clothing played by American actor, James Le Gros. There is also in Big Muddy a streak of Jim Thompson running throughout; it’s there in the bars and the casinos, the race-tracks and the deserted back roads in the dead of night.
Nadia Litz plays Martha Barlow, a woman far too young to be so exhausted by life. She’s the mother of a teenage boy, (Justin Kelly) though at first glance she seems not much older than her son. Martha hangs out at the local roadside casino with her boyfriend Tommy (Rossif Sutherland) luring slot machine victors into parking lots and out of their winnings. It’s not pretty, but it’s a living.
Martha’s a woman with a past, and one particular night, that past starts coming at her from every angle: In one night she must face an ex-lover with a grudge, an unforgiving father (Stephen McHattie), and rumours of an escaped convict heading her way. What’s more, her son has gotten himself into a whole heap of trouble. Martha may be a train-wreck, but she loves her son and will do anything to protect him.
There’s a lot going on in Big Muddy. Maybe too much. But complicated, weaving story-lines are part of the deal with this genre. There’s a threat of having one too many threads to tie up without leaving loose ends in the story. Moneo does pull things together although some of his efforts put a mild strain on credibility – the convict story-line is not fully enough realized to have any real impact, particularly when up against everything else in the film.
Moneo’s debut as a feature director shows great promise. There are echoes of early John Dahl in his style and sensibility. I watch Big Muddy and am inspired to revisit Dahl’s Red Rock West (1993).
Big Muddy is a small film working in a genre where small can be an advantage. The film’s greatest attributes are its performances particularly Le-Gros, Litz and McHattie. An emphasis on McHattie’s performance, with an eye out for a Genie best actor nomination, could enhance a successful domestic theatrical release.
Big Muddy is distributed by Union Pictures who have successfully touted the theatrical release of Sally Potter’s Ginger and Rosa and Jim Cliffe’s Donovan’s Echo. As of this writing, no release date has been set.