Mud (4 out of 5 Stars)
Directed and Written by Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories,Take Shelter)
Have you seen a film from Jeff Nichols yet? The answer to that question is most likely, no, but his three films (including Mud) should be on your must watch list. I first discovered Nichols with his 2011 film Take Shelter. Nichols has a unique Americana style to his directing, which highlight both the beauty in nature and the complexity in life.
While the film is entitled Mud, it centers a young boy named Ellis (Sheridan) who is dealing with the disintegration of his family, and his own journey into adulthood. The beginning of the film shows Ellis' parents arguing in the background. Soon after this moment Ellis escapes to be with his friend Neckbone (Lofland) and the two escape on a boat where they encounter a mysterious man named, Mud (McConaughey).
Ellis, and subsequently Neckbone are drawn into Mud's world, as Mud explains to them his idyllic, and romantic quest for the love of his life, Juniper (Witherspoon). Ellis admires this quest; he is watching his parent's marriage dissolve, but also gets to help save a relationship by journeying day in and day out to help Mud complete his work on a boat to whisk Juniper away.
Ellis's exploration and journey is of course based more in the mindset of his childhood ideals, rather than the complexity of the adult world. Nichol's script does a great job using Ellis, and his view point to help bring you back to the days when things had that simple answer. Ellis poses the simple question "Do you love her?" Mud's answer is a simple yes, but there is more to this, and more to the story of these two people. The concept of love is the main theme throughout the film, the way it courses like the beautiful Mississippi within this Arkansas world. Love does not mean you can walk up and punch someone in the face every time, or shoot someone, because it's not that simple, and script does a fantastic job of creating a parallel between Ellis and Mud.
As you watch Sherdian, who was also fantastic in The Tree of Life, you get caught in the wistful naivete of youthful exploration. Ellis encounters his exploration through many characters from his father (Ray McKinnon), his mother (Sarah Paulson), Neckbone's uncle (Michael Shannon), his own "first love" Mae Pearl, and Juniper (Witherspoon) Yet the person with whom Ellis yearns to hear from most is Mud. Ellis drags Nickbone along for an adventure with Mud, because he feels as though they are on this chivalrous quest, battling the dragon, and fighting to keep love alive. Sheridan has an excellent range, and pulls of the growth we see in his character as he learns things can't be tied up in a neat bow, and there is more to love than just "Do you love her?"
McConaughey's Mud appears to not have learned the same lesson, his romantic nature and idyllic view of Juniper is something he does not even understand until it gets to that final breaking point. In a sense he has has already passed the final point. This is the best role of McConaughey's career (so far) and while he was great in Magic Mike, this is one of the rare times where he has stepped outside of playing himself, and his heartfelt Huck Finn like journey with these young boys packs an emotional punch.
Nichols is a master of of the detail, his direction is some of the best and most heartfelt I have seen in the 2000s; he truly believes in the power of not only the great cast, but the visual. Nichols has worked with cinematographer Adam Stone on all his films. Stones's shots are some of the most beautiful, you feel as though you engulfed in the mighty Mississippi, and that every piece of nature from the wood in campfire to the sweat on their foreheads highlights the power of nature, and the human endurance. Stone knows how to frame scenes in a way that feel personal, like the opening where Ellis is in the foreground, and his parents are fighting behind him. Together Nichols and Stone have put together some of the most incredible images on film.
Nichols, does a fantastic job of weaving a story about childhood innocence along with telling the story of what happens when innocence has been lost, and the adult world takes over. Even with a slower pacing the end builds to a fevered rush; he knows how to make your heart beat fast, and melt with that parting shot. While the ending is ever slightly too predictable/happy, the film lets you feel as though the closure needed exists, and Ellis has grown through his experiences, and exploration of understanding the complexity of love.