There are few sensations more exhilarating for a cinema lover than the discovery of a bold, exciting new talent. With 2011’s haunting apocalyptic supernatural thriller/character study Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols proved himself a storyteller capable of masterful subtlety, atmosphere and profoundly impactful raw human emotion. It was a dark, ominous picture that wrapped itself tightly around your brain and refused to let go, inspiring multiple interpretations and analysis. In short, it was one hell of a film!
And now, with his latest, the Southern Gothic-tinged coming-of-age tale Mud, Nichols manages to wondrously outdo himself. A poignant, powerful examination of friendship and loss of innocence, this captivating effort – which brings to mind Clint Eastwood’s criminally forgotten 1993 work A Perfect World - solidifies the helmer as one of the most promising emerging American film voices. This movie is a treasure.
Mud stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a curious and strong-willed adolescent Arkansas boy whose comfortable world is nearing tumultuous upheaval. His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of divorce, which would yank him away from both his cherished Mississippi river-situated home and scrappy best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and he’s awkwardly on the verge of romantic involvements with the opposite sex. During a secret journey to a nearby island to visit a mysterious tree-lodged boat, he encounters the enigmatic, vaguely threatening homeless title figure, played by Matthew McConaughey, who persuades the two boys to bring him food and run letters to his troubled girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon). In this shifty stranger, the troubled Ellis sees an idealized reflection of his own naïve feelings of masculinity, chivalry and pure, simplified love, and becomes entranced by him, leading to a bond that becomes dangerously complicated – once Mud’s true secrets come to light – and forever changes both men for the better.
Nichols’ stages this tricky material with minimal stylistic fuss and a keen insight into teenage male psychology and their limited emotional intelligence, bringing a true naturalistic tone to the picture and Ellis’s arc. Buoyed by fantastic turns from Sheridan and McConaughey (who brilliantly continues his fascinating transformation from bland hunk-for-hire into top-rate character actor), Mud paints an immersive, layered world, populated by intriguing side-players, such as Sam Shephard’s ornery neighbor, Paul Sparks’ vicious bounty hunter or Michael Shannon’s wacky scuba-diving uncle. Through it all, these people feel like real people, with dreams, weaknesses and inner-strengths, and it’s a joy to merely bask in their company, leisurely taking it all in. Frankly, I would have happily watched them go about their lives for another hour or so.
The first legitimately great picture of 2013, Mud, akin to Malick’s The Tree of Life, Truffaut’s The 400 Blows or Spielberg’s E.T. before it, implicitly understands the complications of dawning male maturity, and wraps its honest truths in a riveting tapestry of perceptive cinematic beauty. If there’s one drawback to this endlessly rewarding film, it’s that it leaves you with an irresistible urge to see what Nichols has up his sleeve for next time. One’s things for certain: coming off this picture, the sky in the limit.
5 out of 5
*Originally printed in BeatRoute Magazine.