Cinematic Thoughts for Cinematic Minds
Director: Jeff Nichols
Every once in a while you’ll sit down to watch a film, having being intrigued by the trailer and it’s general premise only to come away suitably impressed by what you’ve seen. For the most part this doesn’t happen very often, there can only be so many cinematic surprises you’ll experience in your lifetime and I’m quite happy to admit that for me Mud was one of these.
The plot focuses on Ellis (Sheridan) a young boy who lives on a house boat with his constantly bickering parents who are always on the brink of divorce and separation Ellis’ means of escape is to venture out onto the Arkansas rivers and bayous that he lives on. He does this in a home made speed boat and is usually found with his best friend, the tough talking Neck- bone (Lofland). The boys discover a small island which contains the ruins of an old boat strung up high in a tree, a result of a recent flood. At first they think they are the first finders of the boat and lay claim to it but they find the boat has another occupant. This occupant happens to be Mud (McConaughey) who is hiding out on the deserted island whilst waiting to be re-united with his long lost lost Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud tasks the boys to bring him food and provisions and the three strike up an unlikely friendship. Ellis begins to become personally involved in Mud and Juniper’s relationship. The more time they spend time with Mud the more the boys begin to learn about his existence and what begins as a simple companionship results in a climactic collision of bounty hunters, guns and violence. The boys soon begin to learn hard lessons through Mud’s stewardship and Ellis especially finds out what the true meanings of love and life really are.
There are so many reason’s I’d recommend this film, many of which I wouldn’t be able to fit in for being conscious of writing a review that would evolve into a thesis. Firstly it features probably the career defining moment of Matthew McConaughey’s acting tenure to date. He really does seem to be experiencing something of a miniature renaissance recently what with him garnering positive comments after his turn in ‘Killer Joe‘ last year. He does inevitably manage to get his shirt off briefly to expose “those abs” but this fact is down to a plot point and not a ploy by director Jeff Nichols to make female viewers swoon in their cinema seats. McConaughey plays the films titular character Mud gracefully and is sure to go from strength to strength following on from this quite exquisite portrayal. Mud is calm and collected but always on the brink of his raw emotions that threaten to unleash at any second. Mud is also a rather mystical being, we are never sure if he is entirely human at times being exemplary of a certain spirituality rather than being believable as an actual person.
The second reason you should see this film is because its two lead actors, Sheridan and Lofland, are equally as brilliant as McConaughey. Sheridan’s Ellis is a placid young boy who in an instance will leap to the defense of people whom he cares fore and is more than happy to physically take on people twice his size. Sheridan plays him with a hint of dry humour his face rarely slipping into a smile, yet he never comes across as lifeless or dull. Lofland’s Neck is your typical best friend, he is loud and abrasive but also a lot more cautious than Ellis. Neck prefers to do the talking while Ellis strives for action. Neck also has his own dark story having never known his parents and been raised by his Uncle (Shannon) we begin to empathise with him when at first he comes across as rather irritating.
Thirdly, the film is excellently cast, some of the smaller roles in the film are played by Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard. This makes for a more appealing cinematic experience, however nobody shines above anyone else in the film. The big names alongside the unknowns all perform in equal measure to evoke the film’s beautiful story telling.
The film shares some DNA with Benh Zeitlin‘s break through film ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild‘, there is a sense that the land in which the characters live acts a life support for the depressing realities in which they exist. Everyone is tied to the water and the water seems to give us this spiritual being in Mud who acts as a saviour at times. It also deals with communities living on the fringes of society at constant risk of being annihilated by floods. Zeitlin and Nichols have both made films that retreat into child hood imaginations whilst also confronting very real life human concerns. Phil Hoad wrote in The Guardian back in 2012 that American films are “heading a retreat into the imagination, celebrating and grieving a culture washed away” and on the evidence so far he looks to be right.
Mud is overall one of the best films to be released this year alongside the majestic ‘Place Beyond the Pines’. To say Nichols has coaxed a memorable performance out of one of Hollywood’s most loathed actors is quite remarkable. However, this is not the film’s only strong point it’s well acted throughout, beautifully shot and scored and will leave you questioning it for hours after. It’s as rich as any novel or piece of art you will read or see, it takes its inspiration from classic ‘boys own’ adventure stories like Tom Sawyer but also feels as current as can be. It’s also something you will be able to come back to time and time again to unravel new layers of meaning and intricacy. What lies beneath the mud is there for you to discover.