Mud (Movie Review) – Jeff Nichols’ third directorial effort is his best work to date and one the year’s finest films

By Benjamin Lane

Mud. (2013). Run Time: 131 mins. MPAA: PG-13 (for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements, and smoking). Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, and Reese Witherspoon. Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols.

There’s nothing like a good old fashioned southern style thriller. Director Jeff Nichols knows that. In 2007 he showcased his talent for the genre in the immensely engrossing revenge flick Shotgun Stories. Now, he returns to that root with Mud, a movie that swoops down and lifts you up higher and higher before you even know what grabbed you. This is a terrific display of great modern day filmmaking at its simplistic finest. Even though it’s so simple, I’m not even going to talk about the plot. Just trust me on this one. Knowing the plot will take away from the experience. And oh, what an experience it is.

I am one of those film lovers that really likes Jeff Nichols’ films. Having only made three, Nichols has proven himself to be a very talented writer and director whose films are always, unlike most movies nowadays, substance over style. Take his directorial debut Shotgun Stories, for instance. A set of stepbrothers who loathe each other beginning a violent vengeance spree after their father’s funeral. A story which, if taken over by any other director, is a sure deal for some big set pieces and lots of action and gunfights. But, Nichols wrote the script, and went on to adapt it. It looks cheap sometimes, but who really cares? You can tell that Nichols knew what he wanted to do and the story he wanted to tell, and he did it the best way possible, which ended up being a way that made the film more memorable and powerful than if it would end up in the hands of a flashy action movie director. Then take his second directorial feature Take Shelter, which is a movie I find to be absolutely amazing. I still remember the first time I watched that film and being blown away by it. Nichols, having wrote the script for that film also, once again knew exactly what he wanted to do and what story he wanted to tell. Yes, I am aware that Take Shelter had some really cool special effects, especially when it came to showing the thunderstorms and lightning lighting up the sky, but the thing that I find so impressive about Jeff Nichols is that he doesn’t let the effects get in the way of the characters and the story arc. Now, two years after Take Shelter in 2011, Nichols’ third directorial effort, Mud, is released, and I cannot praise this movie enough for its insane talent and brilliant execution. Nichols once again knows what he is doing, and this is one of the best directed movies I have seen all year. When it comes to character driven films like this one, it is important for the director to know how to not only interact with the actors but to know how to have the actors delve deep into their characters and interact with each other. Now I will talk about the acting in a moment, because there is quite a bit to discuss in that category, but for now Jeff Nichols needs to be praised for his direction. He just knows how to direct a movie. I can find nothing wrong with this film in regards to the direction. Every scene is shot from a camera that is in the right place every single time. Sometimes the shots he manages to get are jaw dropping. There are a few scenes when the camera was shooting a boat going down the river, and the way Nichols chose to lift the camera or let it rotate was staggering. Another thing to mention is the interaction between the characters, especially the dramatic escalation of tension when certain family problems arise surrounding the main character. Not to mention the exquisite lighting that makes this movie appealing to the eyes. Long story short, this is a wondrously directed movie, and Nichols deserves everything he may have coming to him in regard to award nominations.

Now, let’s take some time to discuss Matthew McConaughey. I have never really liked the guy as an actor. He has just always seemed the type to be the man that girls only watched to see him shirtless and that was why he existed. Let’s recall some of the movies he has done that would make one think that way. There was How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days, Sahara, Fool’s Gold, and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past. Yuck. But lately he has been on a role! I decided to look into it, and it turns out that recently McConaughey sat down with his agent and compiled all of the films he has done, realized they were all crap, and decided to basically start fresh and pick roles that would earn him some recognition and some credits for good movies. Well, he is certainly doing good. In 2011 he was terrific in The Lincoln Lawyer, which was a pretty dang good legal drama, even though it didn’t live up to McConaughey’s performance. Then, the year 2012. He starred in four movies in 2012, the first being Bernie, a film starring Jack Black that I found so good I actually ranked it as an honorable mention on my best of 2012 list. Then, he was in the strung out drama(?) The Paperboy, where he gave another good performance. Then the main two happened. First there was Magic Mike, that male stripper movie, I know, that I found to be immensely entertaining and the film that more guys enjoyed than girls. Why? Because it had a story men could relate to and women wanted more dancing. Or it could be that the talented Steven Soderbergh directed it. Or, it could be the performance by Matthew McConaughey. His performance in Magic Mike was Oscar® worthy in my opinion, and I still regard it one of his best, and definitely his most entertaining and funniest performance to date. Finally there was the trailer trash redneck torture porn fest that was Killer Joe, based on the play by Tracy Letts, where McConaughey is a cop by day and hired assassin at night, which also should have earned him some recognition from the Academy. It didn’t happen of course. So, will it happen for him for Mud? Well, given that they snubbed him for both of those films, I don’t think so, but if he does, great! Because he gives an all out performance that is worthy of all the recognition it receives. There was never a dull moment when he took the screen. If you are reading this as a female and would like to see a movie that is full of the “hot and shirtless” McConaughey you all love, sorry to disappoint. Stick with Magic Mike on that one. McConaughey is completely immersed in the character of Mud and his dirty and grimy hobo (“call me that again and I’ll teach you some manners your daddy never did”) appearance is something you will definitely remember and his character is one that is so interesting you will never find yourself loving or hating his character, just because you don’t know who he is and where he comes from. That is something to love right there. I’m really loving McConaughey right now, and I am regarding him as one of the best actors working today, and with his upcoming role in Interstellar from Inception director Christopher Nolan, I can’t wait to see what he does next. Playing a character that sort of ties in with Mud is Reese Witherspoon giving her best performance since Walk the Line, and I really enjoyed seeing her in a good movie for once. Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon play a couple related to the film’s main character and they do a terrific job and bring some dramatic life into the already engaging story. Both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter have been led by Michael Shannon in the main role, and once again, Jeff Nichols brings him back for a role in Mud, and even though his role is very small, he still delivers a few laughs and some good stuff. But here lies the crucial point for this movie. The plot centers around two teenage boys, and as I have mentioned in other movie reviews, choosing the young actors can either make or break your movie. In the casting of Ellis and Neckbone, played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, it was a fantastic choice. Lofland plays Neckbone, the constantly swearing and girl obsessed teenage boy that is Ellis’ best friend. He is hysterical and never once did he annoy me, as a lot of young ones do in movies. But here lies the biggest surprise of it all. Tye Sheridan. This kid is fantastic. I was watching this movie, and I realized that there isn’t much he can’t do. When the script calls for being funny, he is funny. When it calls for being serious, he is serious. And when it calls for emotion, he brings it to the table. If McConaughey doesn’t get any recognition, so be it. But if Tye doesn’t get any, I will be frustrated. The possibility of the Academy nominating a young actor is very high after 2012’s nomination of Quenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild. I will tell you one thing: Tye Sheridan is Oscar® worthy.

There are a few more points I want to make about this film, and they are as follows. The script by Jeff Nichols is fantastic. As Nichols has portrayed with his first two films, he is a character focused writer, and it really shows here. His characters are written with a lot of depth and care, and the way the film concludes, relating the closure of two main characters’ journeys together in one silver lining, will leave you smiling when the screen fades to black for the final time. Something else I found really great about this movie is the music, and by the music I mean the lack of music. A lot of this movie is dialogue, and because of that dialogue and the intensity within the lines of it, Jeff Nichols decides to leave a lot of the scenes silent, allowing the emotion within the world of the film to really soak in. If I could say anything is wrong with Mud, it would only be the running time, which I feel is a bit overlong, but apart from that, this is a truly great movie.

FINAL VERDICT: Of all the movies I have seen in 2013, I have only given one of them a grade above a B+, that being Side Effects back in February, which I rewarded with an A-. That ends today. Bolstered by strong performances, a sensitive script, and careful direction, Mud displays writer/director Jeff Nichols working at his absolute hardest, providing not only his best work to date, but also the best film I’ve seen this year so far. (A)

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