Leading up to the wide release of Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Midnight Special, Vague Visages’ Dylan Moses Griffin will be looking back at each of the director’s previous features, and he now arrives at the third film of the canon, Mud.
There’s always a fear when an independent director starts working with big names, that they will begin to lose their authenticity as storytellers, but that’s not the case with Jeff Nichols. Mud was his first stab at filmmaking with big name stars like Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, but he didn’t lose any sense of what made Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter so special, all the while continuing to establish himself as one of the best American filmmakers.
Mud follows two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lowland), who discover a boat in a tree along the river in southern Arkansas. Along with the boat, they find a mysterious fugitive living there (McConaughey as Mud) and agree to help reunite him with his one true love, Juniper (Witherspoon).
Mud came at the height of the McConaissance (and it’s still going, baby), as McConaughey would take home an Oscar the same year for Dallas Buyers Club, but his performance in Nichols’s film marks the true pinnacle of the phenomenon. He’s got crosses in his heels that leave eye-catching bootprints. He speaks in grand fables and tall tales. Half of what he says might be a lie, but there’s also some truth that may be in there. Plus, with McConaughey’s charismatic drawl, you could listen to him say just about anything and go along with it. At one point, Tom asks Ellis, “How long you known Mud?” Ellis replies that he’s only known him a few days. Tom chuckles and responds, “Well that’s long enough to know he’s full of shit.”
Let’s review the first three films of Tye Sheridan. They are The Tree of Life, Mud and Joe. That’s films from directors Terrence Malick, Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green, a holy trinity of American filmmaking and one hell of a way to start a career for a talented young actor. So emotionally and authentically, Sheridan captures the angst, strife and fury of being on the cusp of manhood. Jacob Lofland is equally terrific as Neckbone, who swears and talks vulgarly in a way that suggests he hasn’t quite figured out how to do it well yet. They have a lived-in chemistry, making their friendship authentic and reminding us of our own friends growing up.
Witherspoon gives a soulful, tragic performance, injecting humanity into the troubled character of Juniper. Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon has a role here, of course, yet it’s a smaller one. He’s there to provide some comedic edge as Neckbone’s Uncle Galen, a womanizing scuba diver who scavenges for stuff in the river. The great Sam Shepard has a supporting role as a father figure to Mud that sort of embodies his American icon persona. Paul Sparks has a menacing small role, and Shotgun Stories performers Douglas Ligon and Michael Abbott Jr. make quick appearances. Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon put on an emotional portrait of a crumbling marriage, each of them holding back pain in their interactions with each other and with Ellis.
Nichols’ ability to avoid stereotypes continues to be flexed here. Ellis’ father is an asshole, but he’s also human; a broken man unable to face the inevitability that his industry is dead. The government will come and tear up their houseboat once the divorce is finalized, ending an entire livelihood. While plenty of this has to do with McKinnon’s performance, it begins with Nichols and his understanding of how much work impacts his characters’ lives, one of the qualities that puts him at the forefront of the New Americana movement.
The cinematography from Nichols’ trusted collaborator Adam Stone is just as lovely as any of their other work together. The camera travels down the river in an ethereal fashion, adding a layer of mysticism to the landscape of southern Arkansas. Take Shelter composer David Wingo returns to lend his talents to the score with Ben Nichols (brother of Jeff and frontman of Lucero) contributing songs that enhance the setting.
One of the larger themes that flows through the film is love and romance, the mythicism of it and whether or not true love can really exist. Ellis’ parents are constantly arguing in the background and off-screen, and by framing these interactions this way through the boy, Nichols captures what it’s like to hear your parents fighting. They are going to get a divorce, and each family member hides the emotional damage from each other. Meanwhile, Ellis has developed his first crush on a junior and impresses her when he punches out a guy that slaps her butt in a parking lot. She seems to reciprocate his feelings, but he discovers that it wasn’t ever real. Juniper and Mud have a love for each other, but it’s one that seems to be poisonous to themselves. Just like Mud, love may not always be true, but it’s worth believing in.
Dylan Moses Griffin (@DMosesGriffin) has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.