Good – ★★★★½
Arkansas director Jeff Nichols is a man who makes films about the South. His last work, 2011’s Take Shelter was a film that connected with viewers by challenging them to make sense of bad things that were festering away in a man’s head. The film featured an outstanding performance from Michael Shannon and confirmed that the 32-year-old Nichols was on an upward trajectory following his low-budget debut Shotgun Stories. Heck it even nestled up near the top of Spooool.ie’s 2011 end of year lists.
His latest work and third feature film, Mud, is about two young boys, Ellis played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland’s Neckbone, who live on the banks of the mighty Mississippi. Both come from strained family environments but have a love of adventure which is highlighted when they find a boat that has been marooned in a tree following recent high waters. It’s in the middle of an isolated island accessible only by boat and so the boys think they’re on to an awesome new tree house – unfortunately another party has already laid claim to it, a fugitive by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
He killed a man who was messing with his girl (a low-key Reese Witherspoon as Juniper) and so has the combination of state troopers and a criminal gang looking for him. He seems a harmless soul and so the boys strike a deal that, in return for his pistol, they’ll help him get the boat out of the tree and act as his courier to pass messages between Mud and Juniper who is holed up in a motel in town. Oh and who else but Sam Shepherd is onboard to play a disgruntled former marine who was a mentor to Mud but now lives on a river house where he likes nothing better than snarling and shooting water snakes.
Both of the young actors’ performances are terrific and the allusions to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer are plentiful in the story of two young boys finding themselves as they move along the Mississippi in a beat-up old boat. Tye Sheridan in particular deserves major credit and his performance should sit alongside the work of kids the same age in films like Stand by Me, To Kill a Mockingbird, Kes and even Super 8. Despite what the marketing and the film’s title says, I saw Ellis, not Mud as the central character of the film. His search for meaning, love and adventure are the precise things that drive any teenager as they struggle to balance a brash confidence with the awkwardness that come with the wobbly journey from boy to man.
Cinematographer Adam Stone also shot Nichols’ two previous films and the similarly bleak portrait of American life, Compliance. There’s a wonderfully stark contrast between the run-down artificial life that emanates around strip malls, motels and bars and that of the wide open Mississippi. The repeated use of steadicam shots replicates (intentionally according to interviews) the flow of the river and allows an audience to kind of glide through the film at times. The subplot of river houses being closed down and driving their residents toward urban housing projects is a major element in the film’s exploration of life in the South. It’s pretty hard to date the film as it’s quite a timeless story without the influence of any modern digital elements like mobile phones or the internet; in reality with very few tweaks the story could be placed at any point over the last fifty years of American decline.The big media story surrounding the film is of course Matthew McConaughey, he who can now do no wrong and worthy winner of our second Spooool.ie man of the year award last year. Nichols says that when he started writing the story years ago it was with fellow southerner McConaughey in mind. Both their careers went in different directions but it’s wonderfully serendipitous that Matthew’s career revival now sees them crossing paths to make a film like this. The meaning that Mud places on wearing a shirt can act as a nice little in-joke for those of us who bore witness to McConaughey’s half decade of abs-in-your-face-shirtlessness that brought us things like Fool’s Gold and Sahara.
The film isn’t perfect and is at least twenty minutes too long and, in this day and age, is the kind of picture that will push some people towards the exit doors before the final credits roll. There will be people who’ll have problems with the film’s final act and ending but to me it all seemed like the perfect way to finish the story of two boys who stumble upon a weird, almost transient man who mysteriously shows up on a tiny island. Like Take Shelter, there’s lots of ways to read the film’s ending and Nichols would feel like he were doing us a disservice if we weren’t here questioning it.
Mud has been boosted by its top-line cast to make quite a bit of money for a small independent film (opening at the tail end of April to a decent $2.22 million from 363 screens) and Nichols has already been tapped by Warner Bros to direct an untitled Sci-fi film starring Michael Shannon. It’s nice that directors who stick to their guns and work on smaller budgets can now get rewarded with nice fat studio cheques. Here’s hoping he doesn’t forget the winning formula that has worked so well for him so far.
USA / Directed By: Jeff Nichols / Written By: Jeff Nichols / Starring: Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Matthew McConaughey, Sarah Paulson, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon / 130min / Drama / Release: 10 May 2013 (Ireland, UK), 28 April 2013 (USA, Canada)
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