Many filmmakers adore stories of grand obsession. But in his three features to date, writer-director Jeff Nichols has a unique, particularly dark take on the ruinous costs of monomania.
In his 2007 “Shotgun Stories,” Nichols tells the extraordinarily tragic drama of two sets of rural Southern brothers — all sons of the same father from different marriages — locked in a violent, hate-filled fixation over one another’s existence.
Nichols’ 2011 breakthrough hit, “Take Shelter,” concerns a family man whose apocalyptic visions drive his compulsion to prepare for an imagined peril at any self-destructive cost.
Little Rock native Nichols’ new film, “Mud,” is thematically akin to those earlier works, though broader in ambition and boldly inspired by some of America’s richest literary archetypes.
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A coming-of-age tale set on and near the Mississippi River’s route through Arkansas, “Mud” reflects Nichols’ stated love of Mark Twain’s writings in its story of two 14-year-old boys who travel the river for relief from their shattered families.
Investigating a small island, they discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey at his best), a fugitive awaiting a rendezvous with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the love of his life. Together the reunited couple will escape both the law and coldblooded gunmen intent on avenging the man Mud killed for hurting Juniper.
At least that’s the plan. While one of the boys, the orphaned Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), is wary of the charismatic Mud’s logic, the other one, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) — his innocence collapsed under the ugly separation of his parents — passionately champions what he perceives as an ideal love worth fighting for.
Ellis becomes key to fulfilling Mud’s fantasy of vanishing with Juniper, a mission that resonates with his own naive pride in recently winning his first girlfriend. Ellis’ dangerous role as go-between all but turns him into a little noir hero, throwing punches and taking a painful blow from one of Mud’s pursuers.
But the difference between feverish perception and stark reality — a wounding distinction Ellis learns — is essential to Nichols’ movies. In “Mud,” love proves to be the elusive white whale forever chased by McConaughey’s broken Ahab, leaving others destroyed in his obsession’s wake.
The film’s guilelessness in stoking classic themes, folklore and paradigms in American culture would be absurdly self-conscious if Nichols didn’t have such an original voice as a storyteller. He strains credulity a bit with certain convenient choices: Ellis’ solitary, grizzled neighbor (Sam Shepard), for example, happens to know Mud as a father would and also happens to be, helpfully, a former sharpshooter.
Then again, there aren’t many American filmmakers who, like Nichols, can pull off the wistful symbolism of a boat riding a river toward freedom in a wide-open gulf. Part of what “Mud” is about is loss in this country: the homogenization of local cultures, the dismantling of ways of life (represented by Ellis’ haunted father, a fisherman played by Ray McKinnon) and a vanished capacity for great possibilities.
Yet that boat on that river reminds us parts of our identity will never fully go away — including hope.
Tom Keogh: email@example.com