Review: Mud (2013)

Jeff Nichols is an American director of remarkable talent, and Mud is a remarkable film.

It has to be said that Nichols has an impressive track record. His 2007 debut, Shotgun Stories was a complex portrait of a family feud, and his 2011 psychological drama Take Shelter was a critical darling with a powerhouse performance from Michael Shannon. Now with Mud, a tale of two kids and a runaway murderer, Nichols’ transformation into one of the great American directors is complete.

Nichols tells stories that take place in his home state of Arkansas, and there’s an authentic folksiness to his work. While many prominent American auteurs restrict their focus to New York (or upper middle-class Americana), Nichols’ showcases lower-class Middle America unpretentiously. His portrait of Middle America rings true and appropriately romantic. Essentially, his films are about the kind of people we may think simple and base if we passed them in the street. Nichols deconstructs our foolish assumptions as he shows us the complex drama of their blue-collar existence.

It’s no coincidence that Mud draws many comparisons to the work of Mark Twain. While Nichols lacks the satirical edge of Twain, in Mud he is operating in Twain’s wheelhouse: the American tall tale. If Shotgun Stories resembles the feud between the Grangerfords and Shepherdsons in Huck Finn, Mud mirrors the river story at the novel’s heart. Mud’s hero Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is an inquisitive kid, quiet, earthy, romantic. He’s a combination of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. He’s idealistic in his notion of how people act and profoundly disturbed at their failure to live up to his ideals.

When Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on a river island, living in a boat in a tree, Ellis quickly deems it their duty to help Mud reconnect with his old flame Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and escape the law that’s hunting him down for murder. Ellis doesn’t let Mud’s crime deter him. To Ellis, Mud’s pure love of Juniper rights any wrongs, and demands his help.

Matthew McConaughey as Mud is the highlight in the actor's recent renaissance. After years of slumming it in disastrous romantic comedies, McConaughey rediscovered his dangerous side with great turns in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, and Bernie. He's even set to star in the new films of Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. He’s especially terrific and terrifying in William Friedkin’s Killer Joe, but he may be at his all-time best in Mud.

It helps that Mud is a fantastically written character. He’s a superstitious wildman and old-fashioned romantic mixed into one: both the danger and the allure of classical masculinity. Which is perfect for McConaughey, a masculine actor with an unparalleled natural charisma, but also an understated danger. If there were justice in the world, Mud would put the final nail in the coffin of anyone still thinking McConaughey a mediocre actor.

Of course, much of the credit goes to Nichols, who knows how to direct a performance as well as frame a shot. Nichols’ camera has hints of Terrence Malick. He has a keen eye for using natural imagery to create atmosphere and tie scenes together. Also like Malick, he has an uncomplicated adoration for the American landscape. But unlike Malick, Nichols doesn’t let people become abstractions in the frame. He lets the camera linger on the faces of his protagonists, allowing us to read their minds and peer into their souls.

Mud is a new high for Nichols and McConaughey. It’s a tall tale with the beating heart of a coming of age film, and represents pure, blissful American storytelling.

9 out of 10

Mud (2013, USA)

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols; starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepherd, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks and Joe Don Baker.