‘Mud’ proves Jeff Nichols’ status as an auteur

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Director Jeff Nichols captured my attention with 2011’s Take Shelter. With Mud, he has captured my heart. In what is remarkably just his third film, he provides a career lynchpin for Matthew McConaughey, a big debut for young Tye Sheridan, and a tense grown-up Huckleberry Finn.

The story begins with Ellis (Sheridan) sneaking out of his riverside home and cruising to an island with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They park their boat in the sand so Neckbone can show Ellis another boat, this one stuck high in the trees due to a flood. It’s an almost-mythical image, and it adds to the mystique of Mud (McConaughey), who the boys discover sleeping in ‘their’ boat. He makes them a deal: if they can help him get the boat in the water, they can have his gun. Sounds like a simple tradeoff, right? Wrong. As Ellis becomes more and more curious about Mud’s past, the darker and murkier the film gets. Ellis gets entangled in the web of corrupt law enforcement and forbidden love that Mud’s life has become. A group of crooked cops want to kill Mud for a past transgression, and Mud wants to protect his ‘girlfriend,’ the lost and flirtatious Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

McConaughey keeps the real Mud far from the audience until all the threads in Nichols’ screenplay reveal themselves, and it speaks to Nichols’ talent with actors that McConaughey’s performance is mostly introspective until about the halfway point. As Ellis, the young and talented Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) perfectly portrays the confusion of a preteen – girls, violence, and the adult world are a mystery to him; he believes that all can be set right with just a word, and he really believes in Mud. Thankfully, Mud doesn’t let him down in the end, and that scene is one of the most emotionally resonant moments I’ve seen in film all year. Sam Shepard rounds out the cast along with Nichols alums Ray McKinnon and Michael Shannon, all three giving the world of Mud its full due.

Jeff Nichols is on a roll. With Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter, and now this third storytelling masterpiece under his belt, there’s no telling the heights he’ll hit next. I’m excited to see where he goes and the stories he tells when he gets there.

-George Napper

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