Tuesday, August 27, 2013



Written & Directed
Jeff Nichols

     Jeff Nichols' Mud is a true piece of American cinema. A film that exhibits the details of life, love and consequences in small town America. A film that is elegantly paced, atmospherically shot and powered by a great narrative and superb performances. There is hardly a note missed in this backwoods tale. A story that is written and directed by one of the brilliant young filmmakers in the United States. Nichols has continued on with his streak of exceptional films and with Mud, he has crafted a near perfect tale that builds on each scene and word until we are left full of suspense, heartache and intrigue. Oh yeah, Matthew McConaughey is a damn fine actor, but there is a youngster in this film that steals the show.
     Now, Nichols has proven with his previous two features, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), that he is one hell of a writer and director. A filmmaker full of genuine grace and fearless with his narrative style and place. Mud continues his successful streak, telling a story about a man, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is on the run and is looking to reconnect with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). While hiding on an island on the Mississippi River in Arkansas, two young, adventurous boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), encounter the fugitive, who has taken refuge in an abandoned boat that is stuck high up in a tree. The boys uncover that Mud is on the run from bounty hunters. See, Mud's relationship with Juniper has been rocky from the start, when they were teenagers, and she hooked up with this guy that beat her and caused her to have an abortion. Mud killed this man and the man's family are the bounty hunters trying to find Mud and pay him back with severe retaliation.
     Matthew McConaughey is tremendous in this role and continues his streak of great performances and challenging films since his work in the The Lincoln Lawyer. We first see Mud on the island, chipped front tooth, dirty shirt and jeans, using a found kids fishing pole, with a cigarette in his mouth. Scruffy, sun drenched with a snake tattoo down his arm that goes up his back. This is all he has. He has a pistol. All he needs for protection is the dirty white shirt on his back and that pistol. He speaks in very spiritual tones, a la the thin, short sleeved shirt for protection. Whether the shirt is mere protection from the bugs and sun, or Mud actually believes it has some spiritual context and meaning is undetermined, but Nichols makes sure we are aware of Mud's troubled commitment to try his life anew. He is a man that appears to be searching for a new beginning. A new beginning with his ex-love Juniper and a spiritual fresh start from reality of the consequences of a trouble romance and past. When he encounters Ellis and Neckbone, he uses them to bring him food, help get the boat down, steal parts to get it running again and hand notes to Juniper once they realize she is staying in a hotel in town. Neckbone thinks its stupid and sees right away that Mud is using them cause he is in hiding, while Ellis enjoys the romantic side of him trying to get back with his girl. Ellis is a 14-year old, impressionable boy and is going through his own early stages of seeking out love.
     Nichols brings forth a story that challenges the exploratory curiosities of young boys, as well as the inner and emotional struggles of growing up in a fractured home. The heart of the story revolves around Ellis, who is living in a house boat, where his father catches and sells fish to make a living for his family. His father, Senior (Ray McKinnon) and his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), are going through the beginning stages of a divorce and Mary Lee, who has the house in her name, wants to sell it to the state before they come and take it themselves. Ellis seeks out adventure to soften the impact of the pain at home. He sincerely befriends Mud, not only as a friend, but as a father like figure. The interesting parallel is that his best friend Neckbone, who lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), does not have the emotional pains has does Ellis. He has not known his parents his whole life. Where Ellis is an idealist and romantic, a hopeful wanderer, Neckbone is a realist and sees through all this spiritual, love bullshit that Mud is going through and portraying. It is a dynamic that sets the two friends apart and really examines the depths of each character.
     As I wrote earlier, McConaughey is brilliant. He is so assured, confident and fully embraces the challenges of a man in search of meaning and redemption. The look, the intensity in his eyes and the honest, falsified relationship with the two boys is never once unbelievable. McConaughey has proven he is one of the finest actors working today, but it is not only him that steals the show. Tye Sheridan is almost perfect as Ellis. The accent, the walk, the hurried rushes of friendship and anger are acted in perfect harmony with the emotional, suspenseful narrative. The scene where he lays it all out and sees through Mud's attitudes and ways is heartbreaking and so truthful. A real actor and talent is emerging with young Sheridan, who was also in Terrence Malick's experimental, euphoric The Tree of Life.
     All of this wonder is mainly credited to the graceful, detailed direction and writing of Jeff Nichols. The man is for real. This film may not be as challenging as his last film Take Shelter, but it is so sound in its narrative and executed to perfection. The film does not once feel long in its two hour plus running time and slowly builds on each moment to a final half hour that is nothing short of absolute brilliance. It is so suspenseful and gratifying. It is a southern tale of friends, thieves and young lives. The setting of the small town in Arkansas settles in with every shot of simpleness and the poverty of life. The area where Nichols has set Mud in shows a world that is almost stopped in time. Working off the land or river, struggling to make ends meet and fighting off demons of the past swarm this narrative and gives it novel-like feel. The clothing, vehicles, junkyards and homes do not give one sense of a world not lived in or that is fake. Appreciate that in a film. Nichols has placed his film deep in southern aesthetics, such as southern morals, customs and traditions, but with a challenging spirit that does not become too socially or politically obtuse. Just watch the scenes with Ellis and his parents and you will see what I mean. The spiritual hope, that is so profound in small town America, is shown through Mud's suggestive, changing ways, but when it comes down to it, we are who we are and the choices we make will determine the direction we lead in life.
    The film contains some breathtaking, surreal cinematography from Adam Stone, who previously worked on Nichols other films. The shots are serene images of small town America. Nothing pretentious or arrogant, but graceful it there depiction of this Arkansas town and the Mississippi River. The shots flow with the film, much like Terrence Malick's work and become a part of the narrative instead of a bunch of pretty images that filter the movie.
     The supporting performances are exceptional as well. Jacob Lofland is great as the cocky, self-assured Neckbone, while Michael Shannon, who was the lead in both of Nichols previous films, gives a comedic balance to edge out the dramatic tone of the film. Both are wonderful. Witherspoon, who has not been in anything of real significance in awhile, gives a wonderful, if small performance as the worn down Juniper. Paulson and McKinnon are great as the divided parents, even though McKinnon really lays on that thick, twangy southern accent. Not annoying, but definitely noticeable. Also, another pleasure is seeing Sam Shepherd play a man that has isolated himself on the river, across from Ellis' home and comes to educate the boys on the true nature of Mud's situation and ways. Shepherd is wonderful in the film.
     Mud is a great film. I first saw this at the 2013 South by Southwest Festival and was floored by its execution. I would have to say it is one of my favorite films of the year and although it is a pretty straight lined film with its narrative, it is executed with brilliance and sophistication that only truly, gifted filmmakers can do. It contains two of the best performances of the year in McConaughey and Sheridan, as well as Lofland. Jeff Nichols Mud is a story about Americana and youth. A story that revels in never being too sappy or over confident, but plays it down the middle with honesty about the lives being portrayed and the consequences of people's actions. A truly remarkable piece of filmmaking by one of the brightest young filmmakers in America.

Photo credits by IMDB.

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