Movie Review: Mud- Director Jeff Nichols’ Third Film is an Embodiment of the Classic Americana Spirit Delivered Through Heartfelt Storytelling and Pristine Cinematic Technicality

mud-film-1024x682Engaging an audience in a truly captivating sense of wonder is a lost art form in the realm of cinema, or at least it has become so rare that we begin to forget how magical the silver screen experience can be. One of those rare filmmakers is writer and director Jeff Nichols who made great strides in inventive filmmaking with his second feature Take Shelter, a deeply unsettling and atmospheric thriller that reminded us that the potential for original storytelling can have equally creative follow through. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ latest atmospheric drama Mud continues his notable prestige for dramatic filmmaking by creating a pure slice of Americana; an evocative and poignant coming of age tale that borrows the lyricism of Tennessee Williams works and mixes them with the harmonious sensitivity of a Sam Shepard play, who is ironically enough in a supporting role in the film, creating a witty and insightful modern day Mark Twain influenced adventure. Keeping his respectful gaze on rural America, Nichols creates an intimate reflection on friendship, unrequited love, and youthful discovery with a rhythmic, sensitive approach towards life’s realizations during childhood. Mud is one of those films where all of the creative outlets from the ethereal cinematography to the haunting cinematic score come together in perfect unison to highlight the depth within the story being told. The film unveils its inner soul with a purposefully meditative pace that might deter some from experiencing a thoughtful approach but that would be a drastic mistake because it’s one of the more authentically creative and emotionally opulent movies to grace the theaters in a long while. In Mud we’re not only witnessing the artistic stamp of a director who has found his distinct voice but also the final stages of resurrection in the acting career of Matthew McConaughey who has never been more focused or impassioned on the screen. While Mud might not be as finely woven as his sophomore effort Take Shelter there is no denying his latest drama’s penchant for compelling drama enhanced by the heartfelt nature of the writing, the clarity in the visuals, and the honesty in all of the acting performances.

Jeff Nichols as a writer has the natural ability to comfortably invite you into his stories with a realistic simplicity and a delicate, empathetic touch that gives all of his characters a firm relatability. Whether it’s the financially troubled circumstances of Curtis LaForche in Take Shelter or the turmoil of adolescent growth for Ellis (Ty Sheridan) in Mud there is a grasp of realism that eases our sympathies and our worldly understandings. The plotline in Mud focuses on two fourteen year old boys deep in Arkansas who come across a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) inhabiting their claimed boat that seems mystically caught in a tree. Though the boys are initially skeptical of the mysterious man there is an allure to his backwoods wisdom and mysterious appearance that captivates them, especially young Ellis. Nichols’ script is filled with various complex relationships that seem to not only layer the dramatic elements of the story but also gives depth to each of the characters experiencing them, such as Ellis witnessing his parents’ divorce, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) searching for the father figure he never had, or Mud holding onto a loyalty of love that seems destined to remain broken. Each of these incredibly defined characters become solidly built rafts floating on the murky river guiding this American tale that is emotionally powerful in its overarching theme of true friendship. The attitude and culture of the South is respectfully captured through Nichols’ writing as he utilizes the distinct heritage of his characters to create an atmosphere that feels undeniably genuine. Even though the plot of Mud takes its time to unfold there is still directness to the writing that highlights this unique cultural world where a command of understood gestures or uses of attainable platitudes in the dialogue gives the film a natural impression. Jeff Nichols is able to blend a heartfelt coming of age story with the eerie undercurrent of a Southern thriller that could only be delicately executed by a pristine combination of careful direction, haunting cinematography, and a complimentary score.

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There is a visual consistency to all of Jeff Nichols’ films but it seems as though Mud might be his most significant achievement especially in the capturing of human drama juxtaposed with natural surroundings. Nichols might be a more direct narrative example of the transcendent filmmaking style of Terrence Malick since the visual influence in the cinematography is reminiscent of early Malick works such as Badlands or Days of Heaven. His collaborative cinematographer Adam Stone has worked on all of Nichols’ films so it isn’t surprising that they have built a distinct visual approach to their reflective and all-American storytelling. Stone’s unique framing is the result of Nichols’ clear vision and whether they are capturing the dangers of nature or the intimacy of a particular performance it is all aesthetically engrossing. Because of the atmospheric camerawork it aids in both the unnerving suspenseful nuance and in showcasing the true South with its luscious yet sometimes deadly surroundings. The vibrant visuals of slow moving rivers, muddy ponds, vicious snakes, or meandering spiders are all part of creating a constructed and felt presence that is complimented by an equally haunting score written by David Wingo. Scores can often times be forgettable or occasionally go unnoticed but here Wingo allows his subtle yet unnerving music to move along with the camera and hone particular scenes without being abrasive or distracting. Nichols’ doesn’t only know how to write a compelling drama but he also knows how to properly utilize all of cinema’s creative elements to make a film that is as deep in theme and characters as it is in methodical style and technical execution. Through his technical achievements in Mud Nichols was able to create Americana mysticism for his story where outlandish occurrences such as a boat caught in a tree seem as real as any of the thoughtful dramatic scenarios. However, the real directorial accomplishment here is in the fine performances given by a vastly talented group of actors who bring the complexities in their characters to life.

Directing children is one of those recognized hurdles that most try to avoid but when it’s handled well there is nothing more sincere on the dramatic spectrum. Both Ty Sheridan and Jacob Lofland comfortably portray two fourteen year old boys confused in their current state of life and grasping for connection. Sheridan in particular showcases a series of complex emotions ranging from naïve sweetness to shattered vulnerability as his portrayal of Ellis drifts in between the turmoil of his parents’ divorce, the newfound friendship he has with Mud, and the confusing circumstances involved with his first love and first loss. It’s surprising to see two young boys with such conviction in their performance and because of them they give Mud the feeling of classic American folklore on the level of a Mark Twain novel. Spread throughout the film is a supporting cast that gives the entire experience a level of realism that is rarely seen in movies today, especially with the presence of the great Sam Shepard and the always intriguing Michael Shannon. However, the real highlight performance surprisingly comes from Matthew McConaughey who is an actor that wouldn’t have been able to brave this unfamiliar terrain not ten years ago. As it stands McConaughey’s performance in Mud is the pinnacle of his career though this may be the beginning of a realized acting renaissance for the chivalrous Southern actor considering this past year he has given five outstanding performances from Bernie all the way to Magic Mike. Perhaps it was the comfortable and familiar surroundings of the Southern terrain that inspired the eloquently vulnerable and charming performance out of McConaughey but what is clear is that he carries the film gracefully with a delicate persuasion. Though there are many reasons to experience Jeff Nichols’ fine piece of American folklore cinema the main one would be to witness the powerful resurgence of an actor who has transformed himself far above romantic comedy fodder.

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There are many admirable qualities and memorable moments that will remain with you by the end of Mud far beyond its impeccable use of camerawork, its eerie score, and riveting performances. Mainly it will be Jeff Nichols’ personable storytelling that keeps you captivated throughout and leaves you with a positive heartwarming feeling at its conclusion. Nichols knows how to balance a realistic coming of age tale with all of youth’s wonders and disappointments with intricate suspense keeping you engaged and aware in his atmospheric drama. Mud embodies the Americana spirit of self-discovery, unexpected loyalties, and ambitious character that reminds us of the classic tales of Mark Twain but through the poeticism of accomplished American playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Sam Shepard. Jeff Nichols is becoming a master of his filmmaking craft which means from this point on his distinct storytelling impact will keep us yearning for more original and evocative creativity. While the film Mud reveals within its dramatic abysses a soulful reflection on youth, unrequited love, and unconventional friendship the ultimate quality it unfolds is a classic filmmaking approach where heart, intellect, and ambiance combine for a pristine cinematic experience all thanks to the respectful talent of director/writer Jeff Nichols.

Grade: A-

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