Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols
*** (three stars)
In my previous and harshly negative review of "Oblivion," I lambasted Director Joseph Kosinski for not injecting a sense of personality within the proceedings to make his latest science fiction epic represents something that houses his original creative voice. It was,without question, the crucial element that stopped what could have been a terrific film dead in its tracks.
This week, I arrive to you after taking in a screening of "Mud," a coming of age drama from filmmaker Jeff Nichols whose last effort was the excellent and deeply disturbing psychological drama "Take Shelter" (2011). While I do not feel that his new film climbed upwards to those same artistic heights, what a difference having and utilizing one's own creative voice can make with material that is otherwise familiar. And when you combine a strong artistic vision with equally perceptive, precise writing, direction and a host of strong acting performances, you are rewarded with a film that, unlike "Oblivion," is more than worth your time.
"Mud" is set in present day Arkansas near the Mississippi river and stars the extremely natural and gifted young actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as, Ellis and Neckbone, respectively. As the film opens, these two 14 year old best friends are completely caught up within their daily adventures, when they decided to voyage by a small motorized boat to an isolated island. It is on this island where they discover another boat, inexplicably lodged high above ground in a tree. Upon further investigation inside the boat, Ellis and Neck soon realize, after discovering of a small amount of food and collection of Penthouse magazines, that the boat is currently inhabited. Feeling fearful, the two race back to their own boat with an attempt to leave and return home and they then immediately find boot prints with cross-marks in the heel in the sand completely around their mode of transportation. Finally, they meet the owner of the boot prints and occupier of the tree housed boat: Mud (a strong Matthew McConaughey), a dishelved, trimly muscular, unshaven man adorned with a white linen shirt and a pistol tucked in the back of his jeans.
The threesome form a tentative friendship and soon a full fledged pact as Mud reveals himself to be a fugitive, on the run from the law and bounty hunters and living in self-imposed exile on this island. Ellis and Neck promise to bring Mud food and soon vow to bring him tools, supplies and machinery so he can dislodge the boat from the tree, escape the island and reunite him with his lost love, the ever elusive Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is living just outside of town in a seedy motel.
How all of the threads of the story connect and build is, of course, not for me to reveal to you here. But as with Nichols' "Take Shelter," "Mud" contains a slow, quiet, power that by its climax rises to full emotional resonance that almost feels as if the floor has given way due to its unexpectedness and explosiveness.
Jeff Nichols' "Mud" is an atmospheric Southern tale that is as languid as an endless summer's day. Despite its present day time period, Nichols has given "Mud" a completely timeless quality that makes his story feel as if it could be taking place within any era. The hefty influence of Mark Twain is obviously evident as Ellis and Neckbone are essentially 21st century versions of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer with their travels up and down the Mississippi river, and each voyage instilling them with a greater understanding of the world that surrounds them. But unlike Joseph Kosinski, Jeff Nichols understands that he cannot simply ape Twain's classic storytelling style and call it his own. With "Mud," you are able to sense that Nichols possesses a rich, empathetic and singular creative voice that is entirely his own and after now viewing two of his films, I am truly impressed with his storytelling range as the coming of age plot of "Mud" and the nearly apocalyptic visions of "Take Shelter" are miles apart in regards to their respective genres.
And here is where I was considerably softer on "Mud." I do have to say that I did feel that "Mud" was a bit of a comedown after being so enthralled by "Take Shelter," as that film was something I had truly never seen before and the plot of "Mud" is as old as the hills by comparison. Now most certainly, if you have been a fairly consistent reader of Savage Cinema, you have gathered that I hold a certain affinity for the coming of age story line and yes, it is a theme that speaks to my heart grandly. But, in "Mud," when that theme essentially boiled down to "the summer that changed my life," I guess I may have felt a certain weariness with the familiarity, especially from a filmmaker who surprised me so greatly his previous time at the cinematic bat. I couldn't help but to have expected something more on a creative level perhaps something akin to Writer/Director Benh Zeitlin's masterful "Beasts Of The Southern Wild" (2012), a film, like "Take Shelter," that also delivered in ways that I had not seen in quite the same way before. All of that being said, what Nichols does indeed achieve with "Mud," and something that may resonate even further with me on future viewings, is that he has found several ideas to take that ancient theme of growing up and make it his own and sing its own bittersweet songs.
First of all, I loved how Nichols spent so much time with the boys, Mud, and some of the other adult characters, either in travel on the Mississippi river or viewing their lives existing as closely to the natural world as possible. I enjoyed seeing a collective of individuals, and therefore a full community who have taken such pride, and have completely internalized their relationships with the land and nature. Their ability to navigate the waters with such ease was incredible to me. One sequence, which depicted Ellis travelling alone on the Mississippi deep in the night between his home to the island where Mud resides with only a flashlight, blew me away with its matter of fact directness! It is a journey in that black country night sky, that complete darkness, that would absolutely upend a city dweller like myself who desperately needs lights, signs and very noticeable landmarks to move around comfortably. It is that very innate sense of direction, and the attention Nichols gives to that element, that truly stood out for me, especially as that specific quality works in contrast to the film's more precarious emotional landscape.
While the film is indeed entitled "Mud," this film is undeniably the story of Ellis, and Mud functions as the catalyst to bridge all of the characters together. At very first glance of the two boys, I was immediately and constantly struck by their physical similarities. Even further, I immediately thought that Neckbone, with his shorter, closely cropped hair, harder gaze, coarser language and also as he was the possessor of the film's the dirt-bike that provides the boys with much travel throughout the film, would be the leader of the two. But, that thought is quickly inverted as we realize the he is the sidekick to Ellis, who leads his way through the world with a fierce pureness of heart and romantic world view that he is steadfast to protect.
Life has become increasingly turbulent for young Ellis as his quarreling parents (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulsen ) are soon to divorce, with his Mother potentially uprooting him from his beloved natural surroundings and taking him deeper into the city. He harbors an intense and soon to be unrequited crush on a local girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) as well. His tentative yet committed friendship with the exiled Mud, gives Ellis a reason to retain his firm grasp upon his idealistic views on loyalty, trust, honor and love yet throughout the course of "Mud," Ellis is introduced to his first tastes of the moral grayness of life and adulthood and what it truly takes to grow from boy to man.
Here is where "Mud" works at its absolute best and also the spot where the core themes of this film and "Take Shelter" actually intersect. What I am gathering after viewing two of Jeff Nichols' films is his ability and desire to explore the internal lives of Southern, small town, taciturn men who are trapped in some sense of arrested development. They are all either emotionally stunted, debilitated, crippled or even altogether dilapidated to varying degrees. In "Take Shelter," we could be seeing the effects of advancing schizophrenia on that film's central character. In "Mud," we are witnessing a collective of men entirely undone by the women in their lives and the love they held for them. Yes, we see Ellis' Father confronted with losing his wife and Mud himself is desperately trying to win back and return to his beloved yet duplicitous Juniper. But we also meet the equally isolated and lonely neighbor Tom Blankenship (a rock solid Sam Shepard) and even Neckbone's Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), whose personal devotion to The Beach Boys' classic "Help Me Rhonda" gives the song and film a deeper and more melancholic significance. By seeing the world through Ellis' eyes and soul, we are also perhaps being given a glimpse into how the romantic lives and worldviews of his Father, Tom Blankenship, Galen and Mud all began. With that, Jeff Nichols bridges the natural and emotional terrains to weave a tale of how romantic childhood notions lead into the deeper, darker, and more unpredictable waters of harder and harsher adult realities. And that, dear readers, was particularly compelling for me.
All of the film's performances are top notch. Matthew McConaughey is very good in the titular role but it is not a game changer for him by any stretch. Mud does indeed exist within the same wheelhouse as past McConaughaey film scoundrels but I do think that he has been given the opportunity to dig a bit further and darker than he has typically been given the chance to do. In fact, the character of Mud made me think of what could possibly have happened to McConaughey's overly slick character from Writer/Director Richard Linklater's "Dazed And Confused" (1993) if over 20 years had passed, and all of his once self-perceived good fortune had given way to such bad luck that he has long accepted his fate and has chosen to live life completely off the grid. But again, "Mud" is completely young Tye Sheridan's show and he is more than up to the challenge with a fully committed and engaged performance that I sincerely hope is recognized when awards season arrives many moths from now as he deserves the attention and any accolades he may receive from his strong work.
While I was not blown away, I do want to take this opportunity to send virtual thanks to Jeff Nichols for showing me that all is not lost in the world of cinematic storytelling. Although we are still very early in the movie year, it has not been a good one so far and truly quite the steep fall after 2012's consistently high quality which lasted throughout the entirety of the year. But films like "Mud" do indeed give me hope that brighter movie days are still to follow and with a talent like Jeff Nichols, movies will remain in good hands.