Writer/director Jeff Nichols arrived on my radar in a major way back in 2011. His sophomore effort Take Shelter, starring Michael Shannon as a man experiencing apocalyptic visions and fearing that he’s losing his mind, was not just a brilliantly directed and scripted thriller, but one of my favorite movies of that year. As a result, walking into the Paramount Theatre to see Nichol’s latest film, Mud, at SXSW this afternoon my expectations couldn’t have been higher. Walking out I was anything but disappointed.
Maintaining the working class motif while also presenting a complete tonal shift from his last effort, the new film is a coming of age story about a 14-year-old boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), along with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who strikes up a friendship with a mysterious-yet-friendly ex-con named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who’s in hiding so that he can reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). With deep characters backed by amazing acting, as well as a truly beautiful look at the world of backwoods Arkansas, the film only serves to further cement Nichols as one of the most exciting new filmmakers working today.
Having a young actor play the leads of any film is always a risky proposition, but Sheridan’s performance is spectacular. The character’s arc throws multiple extreme emotional states at the up-and-coming star – as he must deal with personal heartbreak, parents on the verge of divorce, as well as the general happiness and excitement of youth and discovery throughout the movie – however, he is perfectly on top of every beat and his turn is entirely impressive and relatable.
But while Sheridan may be the greatest surprise, it’s McConaughey that steals the show. After a long, long decade of making safe, generally horrible romantic comedies, the star is finally back and living up to the expectations he created for himself early in his career with movies like A Time To Kill and Dazed and Confused. As described by Nichols during a Q&A session after the screening, Mud is a character whose head has taken up residence in the clouds and talks through free-flowing thought, and the actor embodies him in every way, from his stories about his assassin father figure, played by the terrific Sam Shepherd, to his full faith in his special white shirt that protects him from harm. It’s perfect casting for an amazing part.
Nichols has a distinct advantage when it comes to the film’s setting, as he grew up living in Arkansas, but that doesn’t make the movie’s photography any less stellar. Most of the story is set on a river that Ellis and Neckbone traverse by boat to go see Mud – who is in hiding on his own little island – and the visions of the forest-surrounded water is stunningly beautiful. More than just aesthetics, however, Mud’s southern fried charm feeds into every little nook and cranny the plot has to offer, from thick accents to stops at the Piggly Wiggly, and gives the story its own distinct, undeniable flavor that alone helps distinguish it from other coming of age stories.
Mud is a very different movie from Take Shelter in many ways, but that only serves to make it such an exciting follow up, showing off Nichols’ versatility and promising that he has a lot to offer modern filmmaking. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.
For more of our SXSW 2013 coverage, click HERE.
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Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.