While the studios continue to aim for the next big superhero movie, there’s a smaller goal happening among more independent filmmakers—the cinematic Great American novel. 2012 ended with an unfairly ignored adaptation of On The Road hitting the screen for the first time, and 2013 has already seen Derek Cianfrance’s novelistic fraud The Place Beyond The Pines and is looking ahead to Baz Lurhmann’s adaptation of the actual Great American Novel, The Great Gatsby. To see Jeff Nichols tackle that ground, as he does with Mud, is not terribly surprising. Take Shelter was about surviving in an economic crisis as much as anything else, the storm a literalization of impending depression. But where Take Shelter lacked focus, its thriller elements often getting in the way and its treatment of economy and family a but uneven, Mud is a sharp, focused coming-of-age story, a cross between Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird and what is arguably the Great American Film, Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
The imagery of Mud is immediately arresting, capturing the beauty of the world with the wonderment of a young child. Jeff Nichols, in this respect, is similar to Olivier Assayas. He has a knack for turning natural landscapes into living, breathing beauties, instilling them with a presence and significance that mirrors the inquisitive and impressionable nature of youth. Excavations across the water and light poking through trees look every bit as stunning as the luscious greenery and impending storm clouds that haunt Take Shelter.
None of that would mean anything if the writing didn’t make something of it. Mud is the story of Ellis, a 14 year old living on a boathouse with his parents, and the adventure he takes with his friend “Neckbone” to a nearby island, where they meet the film’s grittier Boo Radley, Mud (Matthew McConeaughey). Mud is a benevolent mystery, a teacher, and a storyteller, but also a wanted murderer. The kids are more fascinated by his gun and story than scared by him.
As it goes on, Mud takes the thriller aspects of the story a bit too far, and the film threatens to devolve into an outlandish, lighter version Leon: The Professional with a strange side story about Ellis’ divorcing parents. It’s quite over-plotted as a whole, and more down time for the kids to explore and understanding would be good for it, but it gets bogged down trying to solve its own mystery. It also has very strange gender politics, as if it noticed they were a bit simple (but not bad) and wanted to sweeten the cake a little bit. But it always regains its footing, and its first half is especially strong, setting up this a story not of thrills or revenge, but of fatherhood and love.
That love aspect is what warrants the Days of Heaven comparison. Beyond the beautifully captured exteriors, both films attempt to show love as it is experienced and understood through a youth, but Ellis is a few years older, at 14, and he’s just beginning to understand these things. He looks at love as it exists in his own life—a crush on an older girl who he sees being mistreated—but primarily through the adults in his life. That is, his parents getting ready for divorce, Mud and his quest to win back the woman he killed a man for, Neckbone being raised by his single, womanizing uncle (Michael Shannon), and even the quiet neighbor, Tom, gets a mention in this context. When you put it all together, it’s a wide-ranging and confusing depiction of love, so it makes sense for Ellis to be confused. But it’s the lesson he learns along the way, the way these people fight for each other (or don’t) and the way they treat women, that helps him learn. Love is complicated, and it manifests itself in a diverse array of forms; trying to understand and learn from that is one of the beauties of growing up.
Fatherhood is just as important. Ellis is much closer with his father, Mud calls Tom “the closest thing” he had to a dad, and Neckbone doesn’t know his parents but has his uncle, very different from Ellis’ father. And what of the father of Juniper’s unborn child, obviously the deep-end of failed fatherhood? Mud gives a hard-boiled but ultimately optimistic and moral understanding of fatherhood but does not dodge the complexities of it. Upbringing, of course, ties in very closely with love. Ellis is much more of a gentleman than his friend, who shows traits he likely learned from his uncle.
So it’s a bit uneven, but a step forward from Take Shelter, with a more lyrical, exploratory approach naturally suiting the universal, youthful subject matter. Just as important, Mud remains optimistic but is never sappy; in that sense, it’s an ode to youth in a much more general sense, and that’s the beauty of the film as a whole. Content, form, and tone all complement one another, and the details of each character all stand out in important, inter-linked ways. This is largely because of Nichols skill with actors—he gets an appropriate performance out of Michael Shannon in a surprisingly small role, but he does wonders with the kids. That’s proof that with a bit more confidence and patience, Jeff Nichols could create something truly special. As it stands, he has an endearing and intelligent spin on coming-of-age, and that’s perfectly fine for now.