Since the beginning of time men have been fighting for the women they love. Whether it be a caveman wielding a club or an unshaven, long-haired Matthew McConaughey with a .45, the principle is essentially the same. There are few things that a good man will not do to protect the honour and well-being of their cavewoman/wife/girlfriend. You’re welcome, ladies.
Mud is writer/director Jeff Nichols’ third film. And it is magnificent. The aforementioned Mr. McConaughey plays the eponymous lead character who is on a rescue mission to save Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) – the errant, unpredictable and unfaithful girl of his boyhood dreams – from the bad guys.
In order to do this he enlists the help of teenage friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). The two boys discover a boat lodged half-way up a tree on an apparently deserted island in the middle of the Mississippi and decide to claim it as their own until they discover a stash of Penthouse magazines, a loaf of bread and a mysterious drifter named ‘Mud’ as the boat’s current tenant.
In return for Mud’s gun (and not the magazines?), the two boys agree to help him effect his search and rescue mission for Juniper. So begins a plot that is some way between Stand By Me and The Getaway. It is a dangerous voyage of discovery that the boys enter into with limited reservations and a naivety/innocence that we all once had before we knew the dangers of the adult world. Having said this, Ellis and ‘Neck’ appear wise beyond their years – perhaps from the hardships of their upbringing – and the two young actors give impressively naturalistic, mature performances.
Although there is the obligatory topless scene, McConaughey gives one of the finest performances of his career and demonstrates that there is a lot more strength, depth and dedication to him as an actor than a tanned 6-pack. Opening this week at TIFF is Dallas Buyers Club, for which it would appear that he lost an unbelievable amount of weight to embody a man suffering from AIDS. Thankfully he has come a long way from the likes of Sahara and How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days. (Yes, I have seen both of these films – it’s not something I’m proud of).
Is Mud cowardly in using Ellis and Neckbone to run errands whilst he takes shelter on his island? Is he to blame for putting them in harm’s way? Was he justified in the actions that he took which set the events of the film in motion? Do we see him as a hopeless romantic or a fool for loving Juniper? It is a sign of Nichols’ talent as a filmmaker that he demands so much of his audience. He poses as many questions as he answers and the ambiguity of some of the issues raised in the film require our sincere investment and thought.
Nichols again teams up with Michael Shannon after his phenomenal performance in Take Shelter as a man gripped by paranoia, hallucinations and the fear of an apocalyptic storm. It is a mesmerising and deeply chilling account of mental illness and a very fine film.
Although Shannon takes a back-seat in Mud, he maintains a watchful eye on precedings as Neckbone’s uncle, Galen. The narrative structure and economy of dialogue in Mud is similar to that of Nichols’ earlier film. People say what they mean and mean what they say in Dewitt, Arkansas. That is not to say that the script is sparse or underdeveloped – it says just enough, without saying too much. This is perhaps due to the fact that Nichols returns to his home state to make this film. An Arkansas boy taking pride in where he is from.
And what does the ever-present Mississippi signify in all of this? Shots throughout the film revel in its majesty and beauty – dawns and sunsets explode in reflected oranges, reds and pinks. This is not a film that focuses on its destructive power but instead the livelihood that it brings to those that live along its shores. Contrary to this, however, is the reality of ‘river life’ as outdated and threatened by new laws – the establishment infringing upon a profoundly simple, and sacred, way of living.
Mud is in no way as fantastical as Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) but the river holds a similarly spiritual, almost mystical, power over those who have grown up on it. As a young boy, Mud was bitten by a deadly snake and rescued from the river by Juniper. It is on the river that he plans to sail off into the sunset. No harm can come to him when the protective barrier of water separates his island from the mainland. Only when he encroaches into town, through the necessity of saving a life, is he at risk from the authorities and those he has wronged. The river is as much a character in this film as any of its cast members.
Jeff Nichols is 35. He has both written and directed two of the finest American films of recent years. If he continues in his current vein, making films of the calibre of Take Shelter and Mud, he will surely be one of the greatest directors of our time. His next film – Midnight Special – is a drama sci-fi and will again feature Michael Shannon. They haven’t let us down yet, and I see no reason why they should start now.