Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Man on Film: Mud

With Jeff Nichols latest film, Mud, one thing is clear: Nichols is a cinematic force to be reckoned with. Hot on the heels of the spectacular schizophrenia mindfuck Take Shelter, Mud is a contemplative coming-of-age story juxtaposed against a powder keg of a love story set in the last vestige of a dying way of Southern life on the river.

Owing much to Mark Twain, Mud follows Ellis (played by the luckiest kid in the world, Tye Sheridan, as his other film credit was The Tree of Life) and his friend Neckbone (first-timer Jacob Lofland) as they come across a boat left in a tree after a flood. Wanting the boat for themselves, they find that a mysterious stranger has taken it for his home. That stranger is Mud, played by the down-home charisma bomb Matthew McConaughey, who is in the midst of an artistic hot streak few actors experience. Nichols uses this classic set-up to allow his contemporized Tom Sawyer to explore the notion of love, using the idealized vision of love that Mud and Juniper's (Reese Witherspoon) story presents to contrast the crumbling relationship of his parents (brought to life by Sarah Paulson and the inimitable Ray McKinnon). As Ellis and Neckbone take to Mud's cause, Ellis is emboldened to venture into the romantic fray.

That film in and of itself could be poignant, but where Nichols's film sets itself apart is in the way that reality crashes the party with pangs of truth and flashes of violence. By setting Mud in a poorer Southern river town--it was filmed and obviously set in southeastern Arkansas--the world in which Ellis lives is a poor one. His parents scrape by living a way of life that society is quite forcibly leaving behind. This socioeconomic backdrop adds a level of import to the proceedings, of the inevitability of external pressures forcing the individual down a set path, or amplified consequence to one's actions. More importantly, though, Nichols's keen eye and unique voice when trained upon this world renders a vivid and compelling picture. He is able to breathe such life into these characters, and he wisely colors the periphery with brilliant but small performances from the likes of Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, and Paul Sparks. His masterful dance between Ellis's world and his own escape to the island and the lyricism inherent in his direction is positively captivating, conjuring memories of the early films of Terrence Malick and David Gordon Green (who along with Nichols was a product of the film program at the North Carolina School for the Arts), but with a propulsive narrative presentation largely absent from either of those directors' works earlier, not dissimilar works. As he reintroduces the outside world into Ellis's walking fantasy bit by bit, the audience is reminded along with Ellis that true escape is much more difficult than one could possibly hope for, that life will intervene and the hoped-for happy ending may not come.

Having now directed two straight films which insert themselves almost instantly into the shortlist of contemporary films not soon to be forgotten, Jeff Nichols has emphatically inserted himself into the conversation of most exciting directors of the next generation with the brilliant Mud heading the very short list of best films of this early year.

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