Cannes Film Festival 2012 / Sundance Film Festival 2013
(NOTE: I saw “Mud” at the first showing in Cannes last May. I have no idea if the movie being shown in Utah is the same one I saw in France. I have some lingering suspicion it might have been reworked and tweaked a little bit since it disappeared from the festival circuit for eight months.)
Third features are, for most filmmakers, really the first time we can gauge their capabilities and career trajectory. A debut film is, well, a debut film. Unless you are Orson Welles, whose first film “Citizen Kane” is the best of all-time to many, the first time behind the camera is rarely one that produces much beyond the promise of great things. While many directors break out with their second film, some would consider that they still have the training wheels on the bike.
By the third film, however, we generally stop cutting them slack or grading them on a curve. It’s do or die, make or break. If you haven’t quite figured out how to make a good movie, perhaps it’s time to consider a career change. Just to provide some perspective, Scorsese’s third film was “Mean Streets,” Spielberg’s was “Jaws,” Malick’s was “The Thin Red Line,” Jason Reitman’s was “Up in the Air,” and Ben Affleck’s was “Argo.”
Jeff Nichols, an emerging American filmmaker, made his first two movies with a very independent spirit. His debut, “Shotgun Stories,” had an interesting concept but was poorly executed. His second film, “Take Shelter,” was a superb ambiental drama that effectively visualized the state of economic and personal anxieties in the age of the Great Recession. But his third feature, “Mud,” is so different that it almost feels like a first film.
With “Mud,” Nichols makes what I believe to be a very conscientious leap towards the mainstream. It definitely plays more towards satisfying audience expectations with familiar storyline and aesthetics, not jarring them with the uncomfortable or the unknown. And there’s nothing wrong with that; he’s fairly adept at capturing that boyish spirit in the coming-of-age movies that Steven Spielberg among others made so well in the 1980s. But after the brilliance and originality of “Take Shelter,” I was hoping Nichols would not just fall in line.
And to reiterate, I don’t disdain “Mud” simply for daring to be similar. It’s still quality filmmaking, but it feels more like a harbinger of things to come than something substantial in and of itself. This transitional film is too populist to be indie; however, it’s also a little too indie to be truly mainstream. I don’t usually talk about forces competing for the soul of a movie, yet it feels totally relevant for “Mud” as these two entirely different spirits of filmmaking run amuck throughout the movie. Each claims a scene here or there, and the ultimate victor is unclear.
I would argue that the real winner of “Mud” are the characters, written with love and care by Nichols and brought to the screen with compassion by the cast. Matthew McConaughey, the new king of career turnaround, beguiles as the titular character Mud. He fancies himself an urban legend, an almost mythic figure of sorts. Yet it’s fascinating to watch the man slip out from underneath his tough facade and see his guilt and shame manifested.
Though the movie is named for his character, Jeff Nichols’ film isn’t really about Mud. It’s about the two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan from “The Tree of Life,” albeit totally changed since that film was shot so long ago) and his sidekick Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who stumble upon Mud hiding out in a boat in the trees. While Mud drives the narrative forward, the movie’s real story and power comes from the way those events affect these two adolescents.
“Mud” mainly follows Ellis as he navigates a new world, one where nothing seems clear-cut or black and white. Mud teaches him what love and trust really are when they are together away from society, and then he reemerges to find alternative meanings of such concepts. Sheridan lends a real authenticity to the struggles of growing up and realizing hard truths in a performance that evokes Henry Thomas’ Elliott in “E.T.,” a movie that feels like quite a kindred spirit of “Mud.”
To tap into a fraction of what Spielberg achieved is quite an achievement. Now, it’s time for Nichols to relocate his old voice of originality and create a work just like “Mud,” only with that old aesthetic brilliance and creativity. B /