Under the guise of a coming-of-age film, Jeff Nichols’ third feature is a film about kids for adults and continues his string of complex character dramas, reflecting themes of family, revenge and violence in the landscape of the American Midwest.
Mud (2013) dir. Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
By Alan Bacchus
Jeff Nichols has admirably taken the torch from David Gordon Green who began his career in the same genre but segued into unimpressive commercial comedy. Whether Nichols’ torch will burn longer than Green’s, time will tell, but Mud finds Nichols working with his biggest canvas, a dozen or so characters but all subservient to his young pre-pubescent lead Tye Sheridan. The fine performance of Sheridan wasn’t exactly a discovery, as Terrence Malick can lay claim to that honour, but working with considerably more conventional material, his performance is more impressive than Tree of Life.
Nichols parachutes us into a romantic melodrama of sorts, love struck murderer (McConaughey) on the lam seeking to the reconnect with his elusive girlfriend (Reece Witherspoon), while evading the vengeful family members of his dead victim. These are the broad strokes of the backstory, revealed piece meal through the eyes of 14 year olds Ellis (Sheridan) and ‘Neckbone’ (Lofland).
McConaughey plays the mysterious drifter ‘Mud’ dramatically introduced as appearing magically on the shores of a remote Island in the Mississippi River to the wonderment of the young pair. We’re never to believe McConaughey is a spirit of a figment of their imagination, but this engimatic characterization is part of Nichols’ point of view into the story.
As told through the eyes of a 14 year old, Mud becomes an anti-establishment idol. Ellis becomes hypnotized to Mud’s sooth-saying stories, including the heroic rescue of his girlfriend from his murder victim’s abuse, as well as the storybook romantic journey and reunion with the elusive Witherspoon. Contrast to Ellis’ strained household, the separation of his parents and the impending loss of their home, Ellis becoms the ‘Elliot’ to Mud’s ‘ET’ and embarks and working partnership to send Mud back out into the work via a repaired derelict motorboat.
The film lingers, perhaps too long, on the smaller character moments and interactions not related to narrative or plot. As such the running becomes a strained 130mins. But in the final act, Nichols’ shoehorns in successfully a violent standoff, elevating the film into a higher plane of Americana mythology in much the same manner as the final moments of Take Shelter.
Nichols wears his heart on his sleeve, embracing the romantic literary connections to Huckleberry Finn and the uniquely American experience of a child living in on the fringes in heartland USA. Accepting Nichols’ ambitious desires also means embracing his unabashed romantic optimism.