Sometimes you watch a film, but it doesn’t feel like watching a film at all. It feels like your reading a novel and what is unfolding on screen is your imagination bringing those words to life. Sophia Coppola and Terrance Malick are filmakers with this particular gifting. Beasts of the Southern Wild is another example. The latest example is, of course, the object of this review Jeff Nichols’ Mud.
I’ve seen (and loved) Take Shelter, Nichols’ previous feature, which also had this same literary feeling to it (You can bet that his first film, Shotgun Stories has made its way to the top of my Netflix que…move over Arrested Development). This film, also written by Nichols, summons that feeling of a great American novel. It unfolds before us through the eyes of the young protagonist, Ellis (played perfectly by Tye Sheridan, whom in a perfect world we would be hearing much more from come awards season).
Part of the brilliance of the movie is the casting. By casting Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon as characters that it takes the entire film to get to know, Nichols gets to play off of their known personas to his advantage first. As Ellis enters into their story, one of love and complication, we see them the way he does, a guys-guy and a sweetheart. Its only after the film ends that we realize how wrong we all were.
Speaking of McConaughey, this is his best performance yet. Its nuanced, heartfelt, and after the first five minutes I forgot he wasn’t Mud anymore. You hope for him the way Ellis does, and want Ellis to assist him.
The plot is pretty straight forward. Mud is on an island, I wanted man, living in a boat caught in a tree. He enlists young Ellis and his best friend Neckbone, to help him get the boat down and running so he and his true love Juniper (Witherspoon) can sail away and at long last have their happy ending. The conflict comes from the characters, not some plot contrivances, as Ellis enters Mud’s world and finds out it, and life, are not so black and white, and that true love is more than words and hopes.
Its a beautiful coming of age story that could have been cheesy if it wasn’t for the great supporting characters (very well written) acted deftly by Michael Shannon, Sam Shepherd, Sarah Paulson, and Ray McKinnon. McKinnon, as Ellis’ dead beat dad, is a particular stand out.
And Nichols films the Mississippi River and its tributaries with awe and grit. The characters are dirty, but never more than they should be out there on the water. And he lenses them (aided by his usual cinematographer Adam Stone) with such romanticism. It is a beautifully shot picture.
The magic of the film is that it isn’t truly original, yet it still feels as if its unfolding anew, which speaks to all the talent of its collaborators.
It is a bit long, clocking in at 130 minutes, but you don’t really feel that till you look at your watch when you are walking out of the theater.
Nichols’ third feature is sitting atop my rankings of 2013, and I feel like after further viewing, may find its way into the list of all time favorites. Its a perfect blend of story-telling, beauty, and great filmmaking.