Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols (screenplay)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon

American swamplands were a preoccupation of several films at Cannes this year, including The PaperboyBeasts of the Southern Wild and Mud, the latest film from up-and-coming director Jeff Nichols.  Mud is the story of children who discover an outlaw living on a small island off the coast of their town.  They decide to help him reunite with his girlfriend and escape from the hired thugs who are after him.

The movie follows a fairly straightforward premise and is nothing really new in terms of structure.  Then again, neither was Nichols’ first feature, last year’s Take Shelter, which debuted to much critical praise and gave him the momentum to make this film.  He is a director of atmosphere and off-beat execution.  

Mud and Take Shelter succeed because they place you in the middle of fully realized American worlds and use those worlds to comment on the larger society as well as the characters.  It’s as if the conflicts are allowed to exist only because the larger society are condoning them.  The way the two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) interact with Mud, the outlaw on the island and the title, represents a simultaneous fear of and obsession with outlaws.

It is because of those two contrasting impulses that they decide to help him, though their fear slowly evaporates when they realize he is a kind soul.  Ellis emerges as the protagonist of the story, ultimately using Mud as a father figure that he also has the power to help.  He does this by acting as messenger boy between Mud and his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

Nichols captures this drama with a steady, experienced hand.  He instills a keen sense of place with every facet of the storytelling- sweeping shots of the marshlands, houses built to sit above them.  The story is very familiar and often predictable, but thrillingly and economically told.  It lives in the shadow of something as grand and ambitious as Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it still houses wonderful characters in an area of America that until recently has been left unexamined.

All of the actors give terrific performances, even if the script doesn’t really know what to do with Reese Witherspoon.   If the movie finds a distributor in the U.S. by Oscar season, look for Matthew McConaughey to snag a nomination.  His performance as Mud is the best thing he’s done in years, and along with Paperboy signals his resurgence as an actor who may finally be done cashing in on romantic comedies.

Equally excellent is Tye Sheridan, who gave a breakout performance last year in The Tree of Life and shows even more promise here.  Mud is dependent on him for an emotional perspective, and he definitely delivers.  Ellis is a character who is young to the ways of the world and still hopeful of humanity; to him, helping Mud is a no-brainer.  It leads to all kinds of trouble for him, including the movie’s perfectly edited if out of place shootout finale.

Once the bullets start flying in that sequence, it becomes clear that Nichols is a master of technique, though not of narrative cohesion.  Mud is a lot of well-done pieces but only sometimes a complete movie.  It lacks the powerful allegory and air of unknown menace that underlined Take Shelter, and instead plays it straight and, unfortunately, a bit safe.

Grade: B-

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