Mud – Jeff Nichols delivers one of the most engaging cinematic gems of the year

Writer and director Jeff Nichols has only made two films before: the powerful Shotgun Stories and the sublime apocalyptic indie drama Take Shelter. But despite the fact that his list of work is short, Nichols has already become a reliably exceptional filmmaker who will always create something interesting with a story that is beautifully told, and more importantly worth telling. His films are dramas that speak to us all through their characters or rich themes of family, love and loss. Nichols has now returned with Mud, another potent dramatic film with a superb cast to match. Two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), are fascinated by an old boat they have found lodged halfway up in a tree after a storm. But upon venturing into the boat they discover that someone has been living there. They soon meet this stranger – a mysterious man who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and who says he is waiting for someone to come and meet him on the small island he is camping out on. The boys decide to help Mud, curious to learn more about him. However they soon find that their morals are tested by this intriguing man…

When watching Jeff Nichols’ previous films one thing is evident: he is an incredibly nuanced yet engaging writer. He has the ability to create intriguing stories filled with metaphors and morals without spoon-feeding his audience into what to think, an exceptional achievement for any filmmaker. His careful and considered writing and characterisation is also such that he creates detailed, realistic characters that you feel you’ve known for years. And with Mud he has again achieved all of his usual touches, delivering a solid story that takes the audience on a journey alongside the characters, this time the backdrop being a coming-of-age sort of narrative as the two main boys in the story are seen growing up through their encounter with Mud and others. His story is again exceptionally gripping, whether this be through a moment of high tension (of which there are many) or instead a moment in which characters are quietly engaging with each other. In fact throughout Mud, and Nichols’ previous films, the characters don’t always say a lot, but in their silences they speak volumes. Touches like this prove just how well-rounded Nichols’ characters are and how superb his writing truly is.

As well as the coming-of-age aspect a big feature of Mud, as it was in Take Shelter, is also the theme of family. From the literal family (the problems Ellis faces at home with his arguing parents or the fact that Neckbone was raised by his Uncle) to the metaphorical kind (will Mud take the boys under his wing?) Nichols explores the differing aspects of this that the boys, and Mud, face. It would seem that all the people in Mud are struggling to find some family or aspect of home. Yet again, Nichols doesn’t force these ideas on the viewer, allowing them space to absorb the subtle points he makes as you become more and more engrossed in the beautiful and detailed story with it’s rich explored themes.

Nichols’ direction is also absorbing throughout as he perfectly and appealing portrays the setting of the small town by the Mississippi River where the characters live. The beauty of the environment, from the houseboat on the river where Ellis lives to the island on which Mud camps out on, is expertly captured by Adam Stone’s camera. The heat almost literally clings to the lens on some moments, permeating through to convey the land in which they live. The film also feels as if it has been designed in a way that makes it timeless – it could have been set in the 80’s or even further back it appears at some moments, a brilliant touch that gives the film as a whole a charming nostalgic quality.

Nichols also has the ability to assemble excellent casts to match his characters; people he knows will draw us in and embody them with ease. The performances from everyone involved in Mud are exquisite. Most of the roles are in fact minor roles for most of the cast, but despite this they all create an impact and a lasting impression. Reese Witherspoon is one of the most notable among these minor roles. Although she isn’t onscreen for much, her role as Mud’s girlfriend is one of the most important in the film. Witherspoon still manages to create Juniper as a strong centre to the story, her strength being less physical and more emotional as a woman who hides a wealth of secrets and true feelings from everyone around her.  Other superb short roles played to perfection are Sam Shepard as a grizzled, old mysterious neighbour of Ellis, Paul Sparks as a slimy thug on the hunt for Mud, and Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ parents, both highly emotional roles and both realistically portrayed by them. But biggest standout amongst these minor roles is Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s Uncle in a role that is part comic relief, part serious dramatic. Shannon (long-time collaborator of Nichols) creates a fully-rounded character who we feel we know everything and more about without seeing much of him at all.

However alongside all of these it is the children in the story and of course Matthew McConaughey as Mud who all shine brightest onscreen, none more so when they are all together. Matthew McConaughey again carries on his winning streak of perfectly acted, interesting characters. He creates an enigmatic and almost mystical character in Mud who draws the boys (and us) in with his intriguing drawl and plentiful tales. After McConaughey’s turn in The Paperboy this is again his most sympathetic role of recent years, McConaughey making us pity and identify with Mud even when we know we shouldn’t. Despite his performance though, it is the two unknowns playing the children, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who most impress (Sheridan has previously been seen in Tree of Life, but this is Loflund’s first role). Really it is their story, a coming-of-age tale which these two perfectly embody as they show equal parts innocence and more worldly knowledge indicating they are on the way to adulthood. Their relationship onscreen as the two best friends is also brilliant and realistically portrayed by both boys, as well as providing excellent comic relief at times. Tye Sheridan in particular takes centre stage as Ellis, the story becoming more his tale of his passage into adulthood rather than about the mysterious Mud as the film’s title would suggest. His character is also the most interesting as a boy who one minute acts like he is old enough to courageously take out anyone who performs any injustice on a woman, but that the next becomes a child again, crumpling under the emotional weight of seeing his family unit break down before him. Again these touches are proof that no character of Nichols is written without superb and realistic detail.

Mud is a superb film that is flawless in my eyes. There are no faults in it’s perfect story, no dull moments. The writing is excellent and you actually care about the characters who are so well-rounded that you feel you have known them for years, especially in the case of young Ellis. The performances are all brilliant whether the role be minor or major. And Mud firmly cements Matthew McConaughey as a terrific actor who can create engaging yet subtle characters who draw us in and enrapture us. Mud has already raced to my number 1 in the top films of 2013. A beautifully shot and brilliantly written masterpiece from writer and director Jeff Nichols. I will be waiting with anticipation to see what he does next. I am certain that whatever he does do will surely be as absorbing and wonderful as this, that I can guarantee.

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~ by square-eyed-geek on June 7, 2013.

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