Director(s): Jeff Nichols
Release Year: 2013
If there’s a director that can already be considered one of the best of the past couple years, it’s Jeff Nichols. Shotgun Stories was a simple, but engaging tale of the importance of family and the destructive nature of blood feuds, while Take Shelter took a more lyrical approach to telling the story of a man slowly unraveling before our very eyes. The beauty of his stories are that they carry a significant meaning which feel masterly done, and always deliver incredible performances from his cast. Mud is no different, as Nichols demonstrates the importance of storytelling under the guise of a slow-moving southern crime drama.
When Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) travel to a remote island on the Mississippi, they encounter a fugitive running from bounty hunters. Known only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey), he asks for the assistance of Ellis and Neckbone in order to meet with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and run away together. The film’s story is slow-moving, but one can’t help but feel like each piece is necessary, and even if it isn’t, it’s definitely entertaining to watch. Nichols knows how to portray family strife and people suffering from an internal dilemma so well, that it all comes off as rather effortless, especially when you have a cast that is more than able to present the emotions necessary. And when the story begins to feel like a fairy tale, it doesn’t wind up feeling as jarring and contrived as one would expect. Instead, it threatens the fairy tale structure in order to thrill, surprise, and intrigue the viewer while still providing the obligatory happy ending.
It is the twists and turns of Mud that help provide it with its beautifully composed meditation on storytelling, and just how crucial those fairy tales we grow up consuming really are to our outlook on life. It is Ellis’s beliefs in the power of love which drive his actions, and similarly Mud’s. In fact there are many instances when love is shown under different lights, fleshing out Ellis’s belief system beneath the backdrop of bounty hunters, crimes of passion, and the looming threat of a broken home. All of these plot developments feel right at home in Mud‘s Arkansas setting, delivering the kind of southern drawl you’d expect from people living on the Mississippi and the muddy swamps that facilitate all the snakes you would never want to encounter.
That setting provides beautiful shots of Arkansas, from birds soaring in the sky to water lapping the shores of Mud’s island abode. Adam Stone once again joins Nichols as DP for their third collaboration, and I can understand why Nichols wouldn’t want to let him go. The cinematography also contributes to Nichols’ increasingly obvious status as an auteur. The music, cinematography, setting, relationships, and cast all recur in some form or another in his previous outings as writer and director. It becomes easy to tell that you’re watching a Nichols film, but never does it feel like a retread of old material, despite the fact that Michael Shannon continues to show up, and we always get to see the middle-class family struggles.
Michael Shannon does return in Mud, though for the first time is taking a backseat in a Nichols film. Instead, McConaughey continues his career-reboot from romantic comedy drivel to roles that actually challenge and display his talents as an actor. Easily the highlight of the film, Tye Sheridan also proves his chops as a child actor that will be going places. Having already done an amazing job in The Tree of Life and preparing to star alongside Nicolas Cage in David Gordon Green’s Joe, Sheridan has a presence to him that feels both restrained and powerful. The other cast members such as Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks and Sarah Paulson all hold their own, but it really is the relationship between Mud and Ellis that carries the film, and their performances which seal the deal.
Mud doesn’t end up being a perfect film, with a runtime that feels a bit long, but it’s a fine movie that continues to prove Nichols’s abilities as a writer and a director. Always bringing out the best in his cast, and crafting stories that always feel engaging, his status as one of the best indie filmmakers of today is well-earned especially if he keeps churning out incredible pieces of work like Mud. Fostering a story that carries resonance with many people who grew up being told tall tales of princes, snakes and all things evil, Mud delivers astounding performances wrapped up in the perfect blend of dramatic weight and fairy tale happiness. When the story gets going, and the moralities of characters’ actions come into play, there’s no way to avoid being swallowed up by Mud‘s southern hospitality.