People often write the South off as a cultureless wasteland, filled with backwoods, folksy nobodies, living life in a world gone by. Those of us who live here, however, know that this judgment isn’t entirely accurate; the South isn’t an irrelevant relic, but a place where the culture of the Old South mingles with modern society and contemporary issues. In fact, some of the greatest works of art in the last 30 years have been inspired by or set in the American South. The result in literature and film is often blood-soaked poetry, where characters must survive in a land filled with breathtaking vistas and the eccentric individuals that the Southern culture of honor breathes life into. Some of these works of art have contemporary settings, while others take place a hundred years ago or more; however, the setting is less important than the work having the feel of the South.
This article is the first in a series highlighting excellent examples of Southern fiction. Because traditionally “Southern” fiction borrows elements from Westerns (and vice-versa) until they are almost indistinguishable from one another, I won’t be differentiating between the two here. Some of the works I mention will be Southern Gothic, some will be neo- or more traditional Westerns, and many will be an amalgamation of these and other subgenres. Finally, these are samplings of a rich genre and this list is by no means exhaustive.
Great Stand-Alone Southern Films
Hell or High Water (2016)
The best film of 2016 wasn’t a big-budget blockbuster, but a modest crime drama set in West Texas about a pair of brothers who go on a crime spree to pay off their deceased mother’s debts. The film is intimate in tone and scope, directed by David Mackenzie, and stars Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the aforementioned brothers and Jeff Bridges as an aging lawman working to catch them. Hell or High Water makes you decide who the real criminals are: the banks or the men robbing them. There’s a modern approach to the classic Western standoff near the end that doesn’t even require the genre’s signature gunplay to make a tense, gripping scene. Also, Texas A&M gets name-dropped at one point, so that’s deserving of a whoop.
Winter’s Bone (2010)
Based on Daniel Woodrell’s 2006 novel of the same name and starring Jennifer Lawrence before she was an A-lister, Winter’s Bone is a dark drama film set in the Ozarks. Lawrence plays Ree Dolly, a young woman taking care of her family following her father’s disappearance. Dolly’s search for her father, whose disappearance while out of jail on bond has put the family’s home at risk of being seized, is a dark and gripping tale with a strong female lead and all the hallmarks of great Southern fiction. The film received Academy Award nods for Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actress (Lawrence), and Best Supporting Actor (John Hawkes as Ree’s meth-addicted uncle Teardrop).
Big Fish (2003)
Big Fish is a film about stories and the relationship between a father and son, directed by Tim Burton, and unabashedly weird. Its Southern roots are evident from the start, with Edward Bloom (Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor) playing the role of the Southern gentleman and telling stories about his life that rank among the tallest of tales; he catches a catfish using his wedding ring as bait on the day his son is born and later on wins the heart of the woman of his dreams by dueling her fiancé. Big Fish is funny, imaginative, and, like I said, weird (but would you expect anything else from Tim Burton?) and it’s a film any Southerner will be able to relate to with ease.
Directors to Watch
The Coen Brothers
Joel and Ethan Coen are a pair of critically-acclaimed filmmakers who have a history of smart, stylish Southern films. They rocketed onto the scene in 1984 with the Texas-based Southern Gothic thriller Blood Simple, and have made films set in the South a staple of their impressive portfolio. The pair were responsible for the Odyssey-inspired O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2002), the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men (2007), and the 2010 remake of the beloved John Wayne classic True Grit. Their films are filled with the eccentric characters that populate Southern fiction, scenes of abrupt and shocking violence, and beautiful cinematography that captures the stark Southern landscape in all its glory.
If there’s a poster-child for contemporary Southern film, it’s Jeff Nichols. He has been responsible for a string of critically-acclaimed films (his worst-reviewed movie has an 84% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes), all of which are set in the contemporary South. He directed Shotgun Stories (2007), a film depicting a family feud in rural Arkansas, and followed it up with a string of indie hits: Take Shelter (2011), about a man convinced the end of the world is coming; Mud (2012), a Southern Gothic coming-of-age film starring Matthew McConaughey as a fugitive hoping to win back his former lover; and Midnight Special (2016) a science-fiction film set in rural Texas about a father attempting to save his “gifted” son from a religious cult. Nichols frequently works with Michael Shannon, a renowned character actor known for his intensity, and the two are sure to deliver even more engaging and inventive films taking inspiration from the South for years to come.
As I said, this is but a small sampling of a rich pool of films that take inspiration from the landscape and lifestyle of the American South. Check these out and feel free to share what films should have made the list!