SXSW FILM 2013
By Linc Leifeste | March 10, 2013
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker
“Sam Peckinpah directing a Mark Twain story.” That’s how director Jeff Nichols accurately and succinctly described Mud to the New York Times back in early 2011. I left the theater in mind of those elements but also thinking about Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, Charles Portis’ True Grit and more oddly Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom (in theme not in style, with Mud being a more realistic and more powerful contrast to that film’s striking visual and impressionistic take on the emotion of first love). Fresh on the heels of his well deserved success with Take Shelter, Nichols third feature film is a coming of age story of two Arkansas boys who encounter a mysterious man on the run and become embroiled in his dangerous mission of love and revenge.
With Mud, Nichols’ writing chops and mastery of character development are again on display, with the film combining the same elements of magical realism, family drama and slowly building tension displayed in his first two films. Not to say that you’ve seen this film before if you’ve seen Shotgun Stories or Take Shelter, as this is in some ways a more lighthearted and heartwarming affair, but Nichols as much or more than any young American director today has a uniform vision of his craft. He’s telling universal stories through a Southern and/or working class lens, repeatedly delving into human experience to examine themes of masculinity, family ties, the fragility of relationships, with a fondness for repeatedly casting certain actors (thank God for him and Michael Shannon finding one another) in stories that slowly and deftly build tension, stories in which violence is always lurking in the peripheral shadows.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a young rural Arkansas teenager who is painfully witnessing the erosion of his parents marriage and in the process faced with the loss of his childhood riverboat home and the accompanying way of life. During a secretive early morning boat adventure to a nearby island with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), to take inventory of a recently discovered boat mysteriously lodged high among the island’s trees, the boys discover the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey) fishing on the island. Neckbone is skeptical of this bedraggled and slightly ominous character but Ellis, as he learns the details of how Mud’s devotion to a woman (Reese Witherspoon) led him to a life on the run, is soon drawn in fully, for better or worse.
While the film’s heart lies in the story of a boy’s idealistic and youthful romantic yearnings crashing headlong into the cynical realities of the heartbreak of adult love, this film, as with Nichols’ prior work, is centered on male concerns. While Nichols is capable of crafting strong female characters, they tend to be in supporting (but essential and powerful) roles. Mud takes a long hard look at what it possibly means to be a man in the modern world, how traditional ideas of masculinity clash with a changing culture, and the importance of male mentorship. As always, Nichols draws out brilliant performances from his entire cast. This is unsurprising when it comes to actors such as Michael Shannon, who I consider one of the finest actors currently working, or Matthew McConaughey, who has recently made a brilliant return beyond even his early form, but surprisingly is probably most evident in the strong naturalistic acting of young leads Sheridan and Lofland. Told through their eyes, the story expertly weaves touches of the supernatural into the generally realistic tale, leaving the viewer at times wondering what is real and what is imagined but never less than fully entranced.