Jeff Nichols began developing a name for himself in 2007 with Shotgun Stories. The family drama took a subtle approach, and stayed away from the standard histrionics that would have plagued a studio film of the same variety. In 2011, he blew away festival audiences with the superbly written and performed Take Shelter, his second collaboration with another up and coming talent, Michael Shannon. This time, the story of a man who seems to be very slowly descending into a mad fear of a storm that will end the world, a storm he's having visions of, was also played with a perfect level of understatement, but able to expand it's scope when necessary. It was intense, disquieting, tender and frightening, at the same time.
Nichols latest film, Mud, has obviously benefited from his previous recognition and success. If in no other way than being able to attract a cast full of recognizable stars who are willing to let the film and story be the thing that are actually front and center, instead of their "charisma"and "star power." Having now made his third film, in certain ways similar to his first two, and in other ways very different, it's safe to say that Jeff Nichols is a first class film maker and storyteller. There is very little that stands out as spectacular about the film, except the film itself and just how incredibly engaging it is able to make a relatively traditional story. If he continues the streak he's on, Nichols may go down as the best pure storyteller of his cinematic generation. He takes what is essentially a kind of variation on Tom Sawyer, in a story about two boys who choose to help a man in what can best be described as a questionable circumstance that when combined with the natural course their lives are already taking, forces them on the beginning of the road to adulthood in a way they could never have seen as possible, and is able to wring every possible piece of texture and humanity out of it. It is, in more ways than not, about the things that become part of who boys are as they become men, and how the people around them and choices they make effect who they become. And it is beautifully understated and without judgement in the way it weaves those elements together.
Everything in the film is in perfect balance. Nothing particularly stands out because all of it done with the same attention to quality. It's solid, through and through, with no elements that seem like they were hemmed in out of some misplaced sense of necessity or audience expectation. It all hangs together as if woven out of the same single thread that was never cut. Everything in the film is about serving the story and the characters.
The cinematography details the landscape in a loving and warmly natural way, whether it's the expanse of the Ohio river, the slowly decaying centers of an ostensibly rural town under the pressures of the economic realities of having been born out of the proximity to the river or the wilds of untamed land growing around and in the river. It's all beautiful and languid, as if it's patiently waiting for the inevitable future. It's interesting to note that all of the actors are shot in a very similar way. None of them come off with the kind of glamor that would have normally been attributed this cast, and are shot with a kind of steady patience that gives them every opportunity to make their characters feel realistic without having to reach for that big moment and big performance. There are long, tight close ups that detail every expression and allow the audience to understand that there is a whole system of thought and history happening in each character as they interact with one another. It's one of the beautiful things about the film, that all of the characters come across as having souls and whole lives that inform their decisions. It's due as much to the choices made in the cinematography as it is in the performances by the actors themselves.
As for the performances, all of them are wonderful, in the true meaning of the word. It is a thing full of wonder to see this many people imbue this many characters with a feeling of vivid life to the degree it's done here. Tye Sheridan, who also had the fortune of appearing in Tree of Life, and Jacob Lofland are about as good as anyone could be as the friends at the center of the films story. There is a natural easiness to their friendship and a degree of trust and understanding between them that is conveyed not only through dialog, but through subtle little moments that speak volumes about the friendships between young boys as they're experiencing one of the moments that is going to be one of the blocks in the foundation on which their adulthood will be built. It almost doesn't seem possible that these two boys may not have been brought up in a small river town somewhere in the southern part of the country. These two boys make everyone around them better and lend them an authenticity they would not otherwise have. Matthew McConaughey is given a role that does speak to the kind of typecast he's found himself in at times, but at the same time, this is by far the best performance he's given. His interaction with the boys throughout the film gives him an opportunity to take that typecast in a new direction and he does so, playing it more authentically than he's either been able to or possibly been allowed to before. As still as his character is through much of the movie, again eschewing the more over the top opportunities it may have given, there's still always a sense of something coiled under the surface and a tension that suggests he may be an extremely dangerous character in the wrong moment, but still not necessarily a villain. Ray Mckinnon has what might be the best character in his career playing Tye Sheridan's father, in the midst of watching his way of life crumble, his marriage drift away and being unable to understand just exactly where he went wrong in trying to just take care of his family and live the simple, good life he knows. Reese Witherspoon, who has made a career out of playing either the driven career woman who just can't seem to accept the right man or the underestimated beauty gets to play a real person, with a real history, running from very understandable demons that real people actually deal with, and she carries it off extremely well with the limited time she has. Michael Shannon gets the chance to continue his collaboration with Jeff Nichols, but instead of playing a character with the kind of intensity he's become known for, he gets the opportunity to play a completely different kind of character in a smaller supporting role. Then, Sam Sheppard shows up and gives the best performance he's given in years.
Everything else, the design, the costuming, the music, all come together to support those things. This is a film about these people, in this place, at this particular time in their lives, after the lives they've lived up to this moment. It's all done with enough of an eye toward quality to keep it from ever making it a distraction in taking the audience out of the experience of the film by showing just how well done it is, and always adds to the sense of who the characters are or what this place they live is like. Everything is about the story and the characters. To Nichols, and to his credit, nothing else is important. No over arching sense of philosophy about film making (he's never so "indie" that he misses the opportunity to do something that works just because it might have appeared in a studio film, nor is he ever obviously auditioning for his big shot at making a studio film), no sense of judgment of the characters or their lives and choices, nothing is as important as just letting the characters tell the story.
Mud isn't the kind of film that is going to wow crowds with it's originality, because it's just not a story we haven't seen before. It's also not the kind of film that is going to draw the crowd who are looking for a film that is obsessed with just how "indie" it is or the kind of crowd that really, really loves the kind of petticoat, period dramas that many theaters that specialize in independent film rely on. What it is going to do is build an audience over time that are going to find it after it is suggested by one friend or another, and it's going to be the kind of film that ends up being the surprise on the list of different directors, actors and writers favorite films. In many ways, it is would be the perfect double feature companion piece to Winter's Bone. Where that film is very much about the women of a community and subculture, this one is about the men of a community and subculture. What they have in common is that they are both nearly obsessed with telling the story as well as they can and being as humane and compassionate to their characters (and in turn, the audience) as possible. They are both outstanding pieces of storytelling, in simple, straightforward technique and style.
If Mud isn't one of the five or ten best films of the year, it's going to be one hell of a great year in film.