Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Mud (2013, Jeff Nichols)

Crafting yet another tender human fable, Jeff Nichols' third film is a sublimely touching and humble coming-of-age tale that combines the intimate with a mythic sensibility.

Like the most famed films of Vittorio De Sica, the tale finds innocence lost in an adult world. The friendship of two young boys drawn into the life of the titular Mud; a heavily flawed, nomadic character on the run residing in a boat lodged up a tree. A boat pledged by Mud in return for the boys' help to reunite him with the love of his life, the equally flawed Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is the source of both his zest for life as well as his doomed nature.

The film feels like a relic from a lost era, the kind of American film more commonly revered in 1960s and early 70s. Only the late Paul Newman in his prime could have played Mud other than McConaughey, who is still going strong in a recent rejuvenation after a string of remarkable performances. If director Jeff Nichols' debut Shotgun Stories (the film most akin to Mud) echoed the literature of William Faulkner somewhat, then his most recent evokes that of Mark Twain, most noticeably The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Another element giving off this rather old-timey feel.With its southern setting, river communities, and a drifter on the fringes of society, one could argue Mud as a partial stand-in for Twain's escapee slave, Jim. The film's heart lies largely with one of the central boys, Ellis (Tye Sheriden), who struggles to act on what he believes is right by helping Mud or by doing what society deems right. 

As events unfold Ellis' idealised notions of love, justice, and the literal figure of Mud who standing opaquely eschews his true essence and becomes a role-model to these young boys, wavers as the hurtful adult world gradually seeps in and Mud's flaws slowly reveal. At a pivotal moment where Ellis feels betrayed by those around him, though this is merely adult life knocking, he erupts in a surge of emotion that I haven't seen in a performer so young outside of River Phoenix's short-lived career. The film is littered with fine performances, even small roles for Michael Shannon and veteran Sam Shepard bring weight, but it's Tye Sheriden that the story's heart pounds to.

The film is full of father figures, both absent and/or surrogate, and in its representation of these characters' lives echoes the past, present, and what will possibly come to be. Mud has on him the tattoo of a snake to remind never to get bitten again (due to anti-venom being hopeless after an initial dose) yet he is still destined to repeat past follies regardless of this. His idealised description of his beautiful Juniper recalls the adolescent romanticism within Ellis, the man's vices also hinting at the boy's which begin to grow with experience.

Jeff Nichols has shown a talent for picturing America in a light so rarely seen in cinema. His communities are of humble origins and here in the lakeside people of Arkansas he shows us a fishing society both habitual and yet magical, like the everyday captured in Visconti's La Terra Trema. With three films under his belt, his penchant for character driven storytelling is evident. With a muscular no-nonsense approach to visuals that manages to transcend the ordinary, helped here again by David Wingo's truly enchanting score. Mud confirms Nichols as an important rising voice in American cinema, a talent who over his modest career thus far keeps blossoming with each undertaking.

1 comment:

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