Joshua Reviews Jeff Nichols’ Mud [SXSW 2013 Review]


While looking at great filmmakers within today’s movie landscape, very few scenes have produced as many interesting voices as the fertile ground that holds Austin, TX. Be it names like Linklater or Gordon Green, Austin has a storied history of producing some truly great auteurs. However, the newest voice on that list may be its most interesting.

Jeff Nichols is back with his third feature (following Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter), and it is both the director’s most straightforward narrative, as well as his most emotionally affecting drama to date.

Mud weaves an almost Mark Twain-like tale of youth set in the American south. We follow the story of two young friends, Ellis and Neckbone, as they try to make their way through their lives. With their home situations not in the highest of quality (Neckbone’s parents aren’t around and Ellis’ appear to be on the outs), they take to nature to find a home. However, when that home even changes with the arrival of a mysterious pistol-carrying man named Mud, their worlds are changed to the very core. Inherently a coming of age tale about love, loss and how one learns that love is easy to lose, Mud is truly a breathtaking piece of Americana that is driven by a director at the top of his game and a series of performances that are some of the best of 2013.

Nichols is an absolute stud as a filmmaker. Coming off of the ambiguous drama of Take Shelter, he backs a far more straightforward narrative, one that he both wrote and directed. Written at the same time as the aforementioned drama, Mud finds Nichols at his most intimate, and his most down to earth. Literally.

Drenched in Americana, this is a love letter to man’s love for nature, and his place in it. Featuring gorgeous photography from Adam Stone, the film is beautifully composed, and the 35mm print which was screened during SXSW this year looked as vital as any print seen in quite some time. The grain added a sense of grit and grime to an already mud soaked feature, one that thrives when Nichols allows his camera to take in the sights and the sounds of the setting in which this film takes place.

Spearheaded by great performances, star Matthew McConaughey continues his streak as one of the most interesting character actors in film today. With nearly no comparison, McConaughey has gone from pretty boy romantic lead to a gutsy character actor working with auteur after auteur in the blink of an eye, and this may be his best and most subtle performance to date. Tye Sheridan takes on the lead role here, and coming after his role in Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life, he proves to be the most exciting young actor of his age. His performance is filled with such heart and truth, that the subtlety he imbues within his character is startling. Opposite him is Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, yet another superb young actor, and with supporting turns from a rarely-better Reese Witherspoon and yes, Michael Shannon, this is a picture driven by its performances, all of which are absolutely stellar.

Inherently a meditation on man’s place in nature and man’s relationship with, well, one another, the film finds Nichols at his most pensive, his most thoughtful, and his most introspective. Seemingly a deeply personal picture, the film is reminiscent of everything from George Washington to Stand By Me. A perfect blend of coming of age tale with a very Austin, naturally energetic aesthetic, Mud is one this SXSW’s most interesting features. It also may be the best film from one of this country’s most interesting cinematic voices.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.