Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols landed on the radar of many critics following his impressive 2007 debut Shotgun Stories, and announced himself to a wider audience as a must-watch talent with 2011’s shattering Take Shelter, both of which helped to make a star of Michael Shannon. His magnificent new feature, Mud — which debuted at Cannes last year and screened in Auckland over the weekend at the New Zealand International Film Festival — is easily one of the best films of the year, and provides further proof that Nichols is among the finest storytellers in American cinema today.
At its heart, Mud is a Twainian coming-of-age tale about two teenage boys in the Arkansas delta looking for adventure. Of course, in the classic Southern fable tradition, it is about so much more than that, as Nichols ambitiously wrestles with themes of love, masculinity, superstition and working class life in modern America throughout. Improbably, he manages to successfully incorporate all of that — and some crime genre thrills to boot — into a big-hearted, humourous and deceptively small-scale film that you can enjoy with the whole family and leave grinning ear to ear.
The film opens with Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) stealthily sneaking out of their houseboat and trailer homes, respectively, at dawn to track down an abandoned boat on a small island in the Mississippi — surreally, stuck up a tree — only to discover that somebody is currently living in it. This somebody turns out to be Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fanciful and sympathetic fugitive who regales the boys with tales of cottonmouth vipers and vigilante justice. He offers them a deal: keep bringing him food until he can plan an escape with the love of his life, Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), and the boat is theirs. Ellis desperately wants to believe in love and agrees to help, but things quickly grow complicated as local law enforcement grow aware of Mud’s presence and Juniper’s appearance in town attracts the attention of a vengeful mob boss and his bounty hunters.
Nichols spends a good deal of time immersing the audience in the natural surroundings that he clearly knows well, providing an authentic and captivating vision of the South, and wisely gives us the opportunity to fully invest in these keenly observed characters as the narrative slowly builds. Once the plot is allowed to take over, however, the exhilarating momentum barely lets up and Nichols displays the kind of old-fashioned craftsmanship and character-driven focus that we have too rarely seen in American films since the 1970s. It’s thanks to this vital investment in character and place that we both understand and care deeply about the outcome of a third act confrontation, which comes as a welcome change from the exhausting, emotionless and interchangeable Hollywood action scenes that we are regularly inundated with.
Following impressive, diverse recent work in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe, the enormously satisfying McConaughey renaissance hits a new high here, as Nichols employs his fellow Southerner’s talents to maximum effect. Handsome but weathered, charming yet mischievous, romantic then melancholic, sporting wild tattoos and a chipped tooth, McConaughey is absolutely magnetic as the eponymous character, and he has arguably never been better. Sheridan — who earned notices with his prominent debut in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life — proves himself a remarkable talent here, ably carrying the film on his young shoulders and holding his own against the film’s much more experienced cast members. Making his screen debut as the wisecracking sidekick, Lofland likewise impresses, and the performances by both boys are considerably stronger and subtler than what we have come to expect from young American actors. The impeccable supporting cast includes Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ separating parents, Michael Shannon in a refreshingly humourous role as Neck’s uncle/guardian, and Sam Shepard as a gruff old timer from Mud’s past. Each of them deliver committed turns, as does Witherspoon, who — after years of rubbish — manages to remind us with only a few scenes that she can still be a rather capable actress with the right material.
Perhaps more than any other American filmmaker working today, Nichols’ distinctive films feel like fully-fledged and richly detailed classic novels. A storyteller first and foremost, his is the cinema of emotion and character — rather than the aesthetic cool of many contemporaries — and Mud is a necessary reminder of how badly we need a voice like his. Nichols has an innate understanding of human nature, the working class and Southern lore, not to mention a keen awareness of his surroundings, and his ability to channel all of this in such a consistently engaging and authentic manner while inspiring such fine performances is what makes him one of the most important talents in American cinema right now. I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Watch the trailer for Mud below, and find out when it is next screening here.