Black Mud is a Canadian film directed and written by Adriano Trapani, starring Jon Rhys, Ashley Dane Clark and Christopher Tyler. It is a coming-of-age story of two orphaned brothers who escape their foster parents in search of better lives. Set against idyllic Canadian backdrops, Trapani’s tour de force explores the difficulties of growing up.
We see in the first scenes, Alex (Jon Rhys) attempting to gain legal guardianship over his 15 year old brother Andy (Christopher Tyler). Failing to do so, they leave their foster parents in search of a new life in Alberta oil sands. On their way, they meet a drifter, Flora (Ashley Dane Clark), who convinces Alex to take her with them in exchange for a place to stay in Alberta. In Alberta, Alex’s job offer falls through, and tensions run high between the three, eventually resulting in their separation.
Alex, Andy and Flora seem to be the three main actors in the film. But a forth is actually present, omnipresent in fact—Light. From the moment the movie begins, Director of Photography Robert Mentov plays the puppetmaster of Light: The warm Canadian light bathes Alex’s face through the window; strips of light that are visible from the dark interior of a farmhouse through gaps in the wood panels of the doors accompany Alex and Andy as they sleep within; fuzzy soft vermillion light emanates from the campfire keeping the three warm.
In Mentov’s use of chiaroscuro, light is often dramatically cast on only one half of the actors’ faces while deep shadows are created on the other. The portraits created as such are simple yet beautiful, qualities that Mentov has chosen to portray a truly Wildean youth. Consequently, as the three go their separate ways, Light does so too. And in the final scene, when Alex is seen driving off on his own, the previously warm halcyon sky is replaced by the harsh cool light of a midday pour.
Returning to actual fleshed characters, Rhys’ portrayal of Alex calls for the most attention. Alex is 19 and transitioning out of teenage-hood. He is portrayed as both teenager and adult, brother and father figure. Scenes of him trying to find a job and earn an honest living are juxtaposed against scenes where Andy and him fight over whether or not to buy peanut butter.
The brothers’ struggle is further amplified with the sudden addition of Flora. Here, Trapani’s powerful metaphors of nature begins to constantly augment the story. And with Flora entrance, her name a reference to Nature, a deluge of images which feature immense Canandian expanses follow, representing infinite potentialities for the teenagers. The landscapes are romanticized with thick, lush forests and great desert plains which extend as far as the eye can see. The three enjoy an ephemeral period of harmony in a friend’s cabin in the woods. But soon we see the land being exploited by industry, and, simultaneously, relations between the three are strained when Alex goes into a rage at the dinner table. Subsequently, the three leave the pastoral cabin and make their own separate journeys.
Black mud is likely a reference to be the dark, raw petroleum deposit that is mined from the oil sands that Alex so desperately tried to find work at. Oil sands have only recently been considered to be part of the world’s oil reserve and more than half of the world’s bitumen deposits can be found in Canada. Like Alex, the black mud, is an inchoate, precursory entity. In Mentov’s use of this quintessentially Canadian metaphor, he shows us that there is as much beauty and value in the crude stages of these substances as there is when they become fully formed.
Reviewed by Daniel Wong.