When the credits rolled at the end of Mud and I saw “written and directed by Jeff Nichols,” I said to myself—more like hissed to myself—This better have been adapted from a book. It isn’t. It’s Nichols’ original story and script, apparently a follow-up to his Take Shelter from 2011, which starred Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain and won several awards at the Cannes sidebars. I have that film on order, but I suspect I should get this review out first before seeing it or I might be too hampered by resentment for Nichols’ talent to talk about him.
I have nothing to negative to say about Mud. Nada. Zip. Oh, wait, there is that one scene where the lighting continuity is slightly off. They probably tried to correct in post-production, but then couldn’t match the shots without compromising one or the other, so Nichols and his producers said, correctly, “Bah, leave it. The average viewer won’t notice. Only some other douchebag filmmaker will pick on it.”
Not only don’t I have anything negative to say about this film, I now want to take a fishing trip to the river deltas of Arkansas, so enticingly and crisply shot is Mud. Yeah, so the trip would end up more comedic than Green Acres for a strict global urbanite like me, but I can’t remember ever being so entranced by a rural location in an American film that I’ve wanted to go there, and that includes Terrence Malick’s work, which is saying a lot. There is a minimalism to Nichols’ eye and narrative style that supports my objections to the cacophonic, sloppy overwroughtness of Beasts of the Southern Wild, shot on similar terrain in Louisiana with a similar story about children in a post-flood situation.
In Mud, two fourteen-year-olds, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a boat nestled in the trees on an island, left there by what must have been a Biblical flood. Just as the boys are about to make it their own private tree house, they find that a fugitive, the eponymous and alluvial Mud (Matthew McConaughey), has already taken up residence. A confirmed romantic, Ellis agrees to help Mud connect with his lifelong love and escape the cops and bounty hunters who are tracking him, “Because y’all love each other,” as Ellis repeatedly says. The more practical Neckbone reluctantly goes along for the ride, issuing dire warnings all the while.
This is same as the beginning of Dickens’ Great Expectations, when the course of young Pip’s life is changed after he helps the escaped convict Abel Magwitch, but set in Arkansas in what appears to be the 1980s. I can’t gauge time accurately with these films set in the dirt-poor areas of the Deep South: They never seem to change clothing style, everything is rusted and cobbled together, and they’re using Slimline landline phones that have been around since the 60s. Only the occasional use of cell phones and glimpses of modern vehicles tell us that this story is in fact contemporary.
All aspects of this film are superlative in an underplayed way, but it’s the casting by Francine Maisler that really leaps out. Mud is the latest chapter in the Amazing McConaughey Renaissance alongside Magic Mike and The Lincoln Lawyer, and it is another excellent choice. I’ve always liked McConaughey—he’s just about the sexiest movie star of that age group, with a genuine bad-boy streak that is both non-threatening and glamorous at the same time. It’s almost as refreshing to see Reese Witherspoon make an appearance as Mud’s decades-long love interest, but I admit to having been distracted by her recent off-screen drunk-driving debacle outside Atlanta, where she actually performed the clichéd movie star “You don’t know who I am, but you’re about to find out” scene for cops, and then had to apologize once she sobered up. Still, it is a testament to how artfully she dissolves into this role that it took me a few minutes to figure out it was actually her.
The film belongs firmly to the lead, Tye Sheridan, Maisler’s discovery from Tree of Life. Get used to the name because my feeling is Sheridan is likely to become one of the powerhouse names in the next generation of actors; I would cast him as the lead in my next project without hesitation were he ten years older. True, all of the cast is helped by Nichols’ masterful direction of performance, and children are more malleable than more seasoned and conditioned adults, but the camera loves this kid: his face, the way he moves, his shrugs, his expressions that flit from defiance to affection without effort or artifice.
It’s always a testament to the quality of a script when it not only seems adapted from a book, you hope that it is; as a writer I know from the depths of my muse to the tips of my typing fingers what a tough act Nichols is to follow. Mud is a true cinematic bildunsroman, a coming-of-age story up there with Mark Twain and Dickens, yet tailor-made for the screen, which means it has none of the reductive include-this/cut-that quality adaptations of novels necessarily carry with them (short stories are another matter; they’re more amenable to transposition). All of the main characters are vested with truthful layers and quirks: Mud has his superstitions and his skewered vision of reality that may or may not mean he’s insane; Ellis his purist view of what both romantic and familial love mean; Neckbone his no-nonsense mechanic’s counterbalance to Ellis’ stubborn idealism, subtly underscored by references to Neckbone’s taste in music.
What is most exhilarating is the portrayal of the American teen hero as sensitive and driven by amatory impulses that aren’t belittled with bawdy lust (that’s more part of Neckbone’s character). Ellis is the most manly boy ever portrayed on the American screen—his personal manifest destiny is he’s going to grow up to be a Great Guy, and thanks to Sheridan you are certain of it—yet his motivations and idealism are those generally ascribed to girls in this stoic, killer-soul country. Indeed, Ellis is so atypical of an American movie character that he’s positively French, which might explain why Nichols’ films are so appreciated at Cannes (he was nominated as Best Director for Mud last year).
Still, this is firmly an American indie feature, vested with a pragmatic realism devoid of that kitschy Sundance quirkiness I can’t watch any more, built on a solid narrative structure and a set of characterizations that are so classic they are modern, in line with other foreign films I have recommended over the past year, specifically Rust and Bone and No. If this is the future of indie drama, then I am thrilled it is finally happening.