The third feature of the singular Southern independent Jeff Nichols, Mud is an engrossing and sharply made work that inventively combines a boys’ adventure story, mystery and an elegiac portrait of a remembered past.
Nichols burst on the scene with his stunning debut, Shotgun Stories, made six years ago, that was notoriously and appallingly rejected by Sundance. His follow-up, Take Shelter, of two years ago, was more ambitious and maddeningly uneven, but the parts that worked, the eruptions and hallucinations visited upon its protagonist (superbly played by Michael Shannon) suggested a director eerily and capably moving between realist and irrational mode of expression.
Nichols is a talented storyteller, especially visually. His movies play off the discord and fractious relationships of individuals to meditate on what it means to be alive. Nichols returns to his Arkansas roots with the movie. The movie was shot, by Nichols’ regular cinematographer, the superb Adam Stone, in thirty-five millimeter widescreen. The imagery is pellucid and diamond sharp, summoning a vanished frontier, a mythic South redolent of Mark Twain, Larry Brown and Mark Crews.
The story is a adventure tale, with a contemporary Huck and Tom Sawyer variation, about the avid and colorful sojourn of two fourteen-year old kids whose search for excitement plunges them into devilish and difficult story way over their heads. Shotgun Stories was a Old Testament story of blood lust and bitter rivalries among two warring sets of brothers who had the same father. Take Shelter played off a dialectical tension of a fractured consciousness.
The new movie opens with a startling sight on an island redoubt, in the Mississippi, of the boys discovering a boat held aloft in the trees, the fallout of a massive flood. The enterprising and relentless Ellis (Tye Sherman) and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), undertake one of their reconnaissance missions to seize possession of the boat and transform into a hideout.
Instead, they encounter a mysterious man, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), living a precarious daily existence. Nichols, who wrote the script, creates a very credible emotional world of the two kids, their solidarity and closeness forged through a shared status as outsiders. Ellis lives with his parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), on a boathouse. His need for adventure and discovery helps mitigate the clear strain of his parents’ tense marriage. Neckbone has never known his parents, and his lives with his uncle, Galen (Shannon).
The boys are shrewd and street-smart enough to realize something amiss about the mysterious man, and they soon discover he is a fugitive wanted for murder. He acted to protect his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), he says.
Establishing a rapport with mysterious man, Ellis agrees to help him evade the authorities and some nasty bounty hunters dispatched from Texas. The two kids become his couriers, foraging the hard materials, like an outboard motor, Mud requires to outfit the boat to leave the island. Crucially, Ellis becomes the man’s link to the outside world, from the dangerously beautiful and fragile Juniper to the hard-edged loner (Sam Shepard) also connected to Mud’s past.
Nichols intertwines several plots and stories, forming a kind of arabesque, that certainly complicates the action, weaving in the slowly disintegrating marriage of Ellis’ parents and his own confusion of his first crush on an older classmate (Bonnie Sturdivant). The emotional parallel, of Ellis understanding Mud’s attraction and faith in a woman, is nicely echoed in his own infatuation with his classmate.
The first hour is so strong and compelling, to the point I was ready to concede this was at the level of Nichols’ best work. Mud has a great deal plot to digest and weave together; if the rhythm and pace are consistently textured and shaped, the increasingly incident-driven story dangles and splatters rather than take hold.
The film’s theme exerts a haunting and powerful grip on the material, namely the nature of violence, its origins and what it is heir to. Like many Southern stories, the past is superimposed over the present, and the conflict develops out of the need for its characters to create their own moral order.
McConaughey brings a tremendous physical presence to the part, but also a damaged intensity. He has submitted himself to a talented director and let go of some of his more eccentric stylization (like The Paperboy). The two kids are revelatory, imaginative, daring and wholly unafraid. Witherspoon, who’s also a native Southerner, gives a sharp, modulated turn in a small though penetrating part.
At times the ambition and scope sometimes undermine the tender, even volatile story construction. The violent shootout that climaxes the movie feels borrowed from a less rigorous and imaginative mind. Nichols redeems himself with two stunning images of transcendence and freedom. Once more, this is a director going places.Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.