The best thing about Mud is that it feels so real and yet it maybe never happened at all. Jeff Nichols broke big, relatively, with the release last year of Take Shelter – a film about a paranoid schizophrenic with apocalyptic delusions – but his literal debut, Shotgun Stories was a small, gritty, rural-set drama that was barely seen by anybody. They seem a disparate pair at first and Mud, his third film and something of a modern-day fairytale, seemed on synopsis to take him out in a third different direction but in execution it actually unites the oeuvre of this esoteric auteur. Delusions, dynasties and the deep-south are all smashed together in this sublime, smile-evoking story.
Seen now, in a larger context, the themes and ideas of these three films all intertwine, tying them together and it’s that last part, the magical joy of Mud, that distinguishes it from Shelter and Shotgun; two terrific, but ultimately terrifying films. If Shelter is a suspense thriller as seen through the Nichol’s prism then Mud is his attempt at a coming-of-age comedy (comparing the roles of Michael Shannon in each tells of the tone). Though it will surely be sold as a Matthew McConaughey / Reese Witherspoon movie – and rightly so in the case of the former, who is fantastic – the two protagonists are actually complete unknowns, two teen boys who are so good you never once miss the adults when they are offscreen.
And they are off-screen a lot. Mud plays a lot like a Shane Meadows movie, following these kids as they meddle in affairs far larger than they are prepared for. There is a telling sequence three-quarters of the way into the film when the two boys walk into a biker bar; theoretically it’s important because of how it plays into the plot, but it was the way Nichols shot it that stuck with me. We see the bottom section of a grimy door, we see beer-bloated torso’s and leather-clad lower legs, then they enter and we see that the camera is set for their height, their heads perfectly framed. Like a Meadow’s movie Mud takes on the perspective of its pubescent protagonists.
There is certainly a compelling movie that could have been made with the titular character as its protagonist, one that would have made an effective double-feature with Shelter and dealt with many of the same issues. Mud is a sociopath at least, he has a dark past and a darker seeming future, he lives on the edge which is exactly where Nichols likes to shoot his films. Seeing him through the eyes of Ellis and Neckbone alters him though, he becomes something of a mystical figure akin to the spirits he speaks so openly about and his evasion of the law less of a tragedy and more of a fantastic parable, a tale told by children around camp fires on the swamp.
While I praise the idea here It could easily have backfired, the film could have fallen apart or been left fallow as a result but Nichols and his crew pull off the balancing act; the very vocal audience that I saw the film with found many scenes both funny and frightening simultaneously, which seemed to be his intention. The most difficult stretch of the rope should have been making the everyday lives of these fourteen year olds – their crushes and their family crisis – as compelling as the life and death stakes of the Mud section but the film does this seamlessly; as much as I enjoyed Matt in the larger-than-life role I was never impatient to return to him because each string of story was so strong.
This is so well done that I could almost have even done without Mud himself, the story too working fine without him in it. There is no fantastical twist, no valid hints that he is a figment of their imagination but he nevertheless works quite well as one; his fate reflecting that of Ellis and his family in an enlightening way. In fact the entire film circles around certain recurring ideas – lost loves, fallen fathers, the degradation of the American family and ultimately the end of America as its known – and each character experiences them in their own ways; Mud is just a heightened amalgamation of all those lives, a mix of all the drama that flows down the river. He is both real and a figment, works on both psychological and paranormal levels, as a wise man and a criminal, a good guy and not one, his own person and a pastiche.
So sure, that seems some heavy, heady stuff but it never feels that way because it’s never the focus of the film; the kids feel deeply about the death, divorce and delocation that occurs but defer those feelings in favour of having fun and so we do to. Perhaps this innocently positive outlook tips over slightly in the film’s final shots, which undercut the magic of mystery in favour of fan-service, but by all rights the film should have fallen over far earlier than that so it’s hard to find this much of a fault. Aside from that ending and the attractive cast there is very little about this film that is Hollywood, it doesn’t feel like a studio picture (not even a Sundance style indie) so much as an ‘American Film’ in the same way that there are ‘French Films’ and ‘Australian Films’; the foot-stomps and fiddles of the David Wingo / Dirty Three score exemplify this.
Strangely then Mud is the most ‘feel-good’ film that I’ve seen this year and the funniest too despite its dark, dramatic roots ( Mud’s magic shirt, which I took to be a meta-joke about Matt’s now infamous penchant for shirtlessness, was my favorite bit but there were more than a few to choose from ). It’s the sort of film that you should force your whole family to see and dare them not to smile, not to get caught up in the high stakes lives of these swamp searching fourteen year-olds. Without compromising his vision, his style or his interests Jeff Nichols has gone from making one of the year’s creepiest and most challenging films to perhaps its biggest crowd-pleaser. Here’s hoping that it can get the crowd’s to please.