by Daniel Rester
Writer-director Jeff Nichols has been quietly building towards becoming one of the better filmmakers of his generation. His past two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), didn’t find big audiences but are often praised by critics. The same seems to be the case for Nichol’s newest picture, Mud (2013). It is likely that Nichol’s will be big news in a few years with future films (if his movies start to make more money and gain more attention), but one can only hope that these early films by him will not remain minimally seen.
Mud is a Southern fried romance/coming-of-age film. It takes place in Arkansas (where Nichol’s is from) and focuses on two teenagers named Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who starred in the 2011 film The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Ellis lives on the river with his parents (played by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon), while Neckbone lives in a nearby town with his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon).
Ellis and Neckbone’s lives change after they stumble across a boat in a tree on an island. After they discover the boat, they come across a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The man says that the boat is his, but that he will give the boys a gun in exchange for their aid. Mud says that he is waiting on the island for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and needs the boys to gather food and parts and also take letters to Juniper.
While all of this is going on, Ellis tries to find love with a girl named Maypearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), must deal with his parent’s possible divorce, and comes to learn more about his neighbor, Tom (Sam Shepard). As things unfold further in the story, Mud starts to affect Ellis and Neckbone’s lives in ways that they never imagined.
Nichol’s draws on a Mark Twain-esque style of storytelling (and locations) for Mud, and pulls it off admirably. The writer-director allows his story to unfold in a deliberate manner, casting everything against natural, memorable Arkansas locations for his story’s diegesis. Adam Stone’s cinematography lends a lot to Nichol’s work as well – capturing the rivers, forests, and skies of Arkansas beautifully.
Nichols explores such things as one-way love, revenge, teen angst, unlikely bonds, and rural families with Mud. He uses his usual dark tone but also gives Mud a certain sweetness and honesty that never feels artificial. The filmmaker’s strongest play, though, is in how well he develops each character – no matter how small a part they play in the story. Each and every person on the screen feels real and has an interesting past, which allows the audience to draw multiple connections.
The cast also does a fine job at connecting with Nichol’s material. Sheridan and McConaughey take center stage with their performances, both displaying a level of toughness and sadness for their characters. Sheridan is believable and never overplays his “teenage rage,” while McConaughey dismisses his star power showiness possibilities and instead delivers a more subtle performance – one of his best.
It is also nice to see such actors as Shepard and Witherspoon in the supporting area. They, along with the rest of the supporting cast, perfectly add emotional weight to the going-ons and play off of Sheridan and McConaughey well. The standouts (for me at least), though, are Lofland and Shannon. Lofland is a newcomer, but he is a real find. The kid has a strong presence and does a fine job at balancing both dramatic and funny dialogue deliveries – often saying some blunt and hilarious things. Shannon, who was in both Stories and Shelter, has a small but affecting part as Galen. The actor just fits perfectly in Nichol’s worlds; in Mud he mixes his usual oddness with Nichol’s human approach to provide another superb performance.
Mud is a small but absorbing film, not quite as mesmerizing as Shelter but still terrifically made. The movie does have a few moments of obvious foreshadowing and a couple of half-baked scenes but as a whole it is excellent – taking semi-familiar story lines and rendering them as fresh and moving. It’s the kind of film that stays in your head long after it finishes – just like Stories and Shelter.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-).