With each successive project growing in scale and ambition, MUD finds Jeff Nichols at the forefront of American cinema and confirms Timothy E. RAW's long held suspicions of his being the country's most significant filmmaker since Paul Thomas Anderson. He reviews the film and talks to Nichols at Sundance UK.
The cover of the upcoming issue of Verite Magazine poses the question, "is Jeff Nichols the future of American Cinema?" The answer from this quarter is a resounding yes.
Apart from being the most exciting American filmmaker since Paul Thomas Anderson, he's also the most significant, mostly because of the way that, in the midst of ballooning budgets, superhero multiplex takeovers and a summer tentpole season that seems to start earlier and earlier every year, his films remind us of an American cinema that's lost its mavericks in the mainstream, a point italicized and underlined by the recent retirement of Steven Soderbergh, who addressed the sorry state of American cinema in his keynote speech at the San Francisco Film Festival last month.
On what he'd do differently if put in charge of a profit driven system run by people who don't know anything about movies - picking projects and punishing the filmmakers when they flop - Soderbergh's solution was simple: "If I were running a studio, I'd get a Shane Carruth (Upstream Color), a Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) and an Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine) and ask 'What do you wanna make?'"
Clearly, the mavericks are out there, but their films are either lost between the shifting tectonic plates of on demand models yet to stabilize (see our new column Sprocket Holes) or relegated to the arthouse world of playing very limited engagements in major (American) cities, lucky to even see a second week before they're replaced. With no money or interest in advertising, there's simply no time for word of mouth to come into effect.
Looking at the robust health of the indie scene in the nineties, Jim Jarmusch, Hal Hartley, Richard Linklater and yes, Steven Soderbergh, all built cults of personality around their more singular, esoteric visions because they were allowed space in a marketplace which no longer considers pictures that don't come with three zeros on the end. The names of Currath, Jenkins and Smietz aren't given nearly the same size release windows or the media attention of the nineties "slacker set", known only amongst the most dedicated cinephiles who'd most likely struggle to point them out on the street.
During the seventies golden age of American cinema, when the indie spirit infected and dictated the mainstream, in their collective embrace of counterculture, studios were falling over themselves to back pioneering risk-takers telling stories that reflected and shaped our world from the outskirts. In light of the recent re-release of Jerry Schatzberg's Scarecrow at the BFI, one wonders that there could ever exist a world in which Warner Bros would bank the wide release of an emotionally restrained tale of cross-country friendship between a couple of hobos – though it's worth noting the recent Sight & Sound article in which Schatzberg is quick to point out that after two weeks in cinemas, The Exorcist was released and Warners "dropped Scarecrow like a hot potato. That was where the money was."
One is reminded of Scarecrow and the times of more venturesome studio fare whilst watching Jeff Nichols' latest, featuring Matthew McConaughey's titular hobo in the lead. Like Schatzberg's film it's about ramshackle drifters forging powerful and touching friendships. Riding a wave of festival circuit praise, the film has now snuck itself into the multiplex where it belongs. This is appropriate, as Nichols isn't a filmmaker carving a micro-budget niche in the margins, but a maverick in every cinematic sense of the word. In just three films, his textured, weatherworn widescreen imagery marks an impressive progression from the portraiture of his debut Shotgun Stories, longtime DP Adam Stone capturing the Arkansas locations at every time of day, under just about every different type of sunlight there is. Nichols' affection for narratives seeped in atmosphere and populated by mysterious characters remains true to form, a future of American cinema that pays quiet respect to the past of human storytelling and the lived-in real world of the present. It's a palate cleanser to the ear-splitting bangs n' booms of CGI franchises currently battling for the box office.
Unlike those weightless fanboy fantasies held up by so many ones and zeroes that you can never fully give yourself over to them (or maybe it's just the spandex), Mud's adolescent adventure is immediately relatable as the kind many might remember looking for themselves out in the woods with friends as kids. Set amongst the houseboats which dot the banks of the Mississippi river, it's a somewhat familiar Mark Twain-esque tale of boyhood rambunctiousness with a specificity of location and language which feels like stepping into an entirely different world, ordered around the daily grind rather than a grinding series of set pieces.
It starts with the arresting image of boat marooned in a tree, happened upon by two Mississippi scamps who forge a loyal bond with the yarn-spinning fugitive squatting in it. Mud (McConaughey) is hiding out from the law and vicious bounty hunters, after killing a man whilst defending the honour of his childhood sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, taking a leaf out of McConaughey's book and reminding us that there's more to her than rotten rom-coms). He's laying low, awaiting her arrival and working on getting the boat out of the tree so they can take off down river together, but one of the boys, shrewd, sensible Neckbone ("heck of a good handle son" Mud remarks) immediately writes this stranger off as a law-breaking bum, occasioning one of Mud's self-sufficient, self-poeticizing sermons:
"I ain't no bum, I got money boy. You can call me a hobo ‘cause a hobo'll work for his livin'. You can call me homeless ‘cause… well that's true for now, but you call me a bum again, I'ma teach you sumthin' bout respect your daddy never did."
Mud takes great pride in living outside the law and explaining himself, indeed he thinks it's his moral imperative to do so. Language is key here. Every time Mud opens his mouth Nichols has a sing-song of local aphorisms and observational non sequiturs at the ready, perfectly suited to McConaughey's trademark Texan twang. On the "triple sick, real deal sociopath" who threatened Juniper, Mud's hardly at a loss for words. "I'd lay the whole family down the same way, and I ain't a violent man."
There's poetry and a pride to Mud, heroic in the eyes of his young, impressionable audience and sensitive Ellis sinks all the way to the bottom. Once he learns Mud's doing all he's doin' in the name of true love, he recognizes a kindred spirit, a romantic male role model he can't find in his father whose on the verge of divorce and bitterly fighting with his mother every night, nor Neckbone's uncle (Michael Shannon), a man who has no scruples about bedding down with any old piece of strange he can pick up at the local watering hole. The soulful connection Mud talks about having with Juniper is exactly what Ellis wants with the high-schooler in the year above leading him on. It's also exactly what he needs at this trying time of familial discord, Mud quickly becoming something of a surrogate father as Ellis' own seems to be failing him.
Of course, Mud's fairytale of love conquering all soon turns out to be just that, Juniper revealed as a feckless floozy who's only interested in Mud whenever her bad boyfriends start beating on her. Despite their age difference, little boy naivety is what Mud and Ellis both have in common when it comes to matters of the heart, and though reality is harsh, the film never becomes cynical because of it. Ellis' eventual coming of age is in realizing the mistake of believing a disillusionist who doesn't traffic in truth, but indubitably, Mud encouraging Ellis to love with all his heart also enriches and inspires the boy, instilling a greater sense of self and confidence.
That the personalities of the two boys played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are so distinct – the romantic dreamer and his loyal to a fault, more practical companion – lends the film a rueful warmth which extends to its impeccably human ensemble. Michael Shannon, the lead in both Nichols' previous features, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, has little more than a glorified cameo here (disappointing, especially if you're as enamored of the Nichols/Shannon collaboration as I am), but there are some wonderful details to the character that ensure his appearance is a memorable one. Uncle Galen is a bit of a punk rocker. We see a sticker for what's presumably his band, The Numbskullz behind him on the couch, next to a picture of Sid Vicious. He's strums a guitar as he imparts a warning to Neckbone, knowing that whatever he and Ellis are involved with will lead to no good: "This river brings a lot of trash down it. You gotta know what's worth keeping and what's worth letting go". As his nephew runs off, he invites him to stick around and watch him and his friends "pump it up" at a jam session later that evening. Neckbone declines but far from offended, a fond smile tells us Galen can wait until the day he says yes. Until then, he can't imagine life without the boy he's raised as his own son.
Things aren't nearly so harmonious for Ellis who is coming to understand that his father is fallible, and harbouring independent thoughts under haranguing paternal rule. As the father, Ray McKinnon's growing awareness that he's losing his son's respect is heartbreaking as he struggles to explain to Ellis that his mother would "rather tongue lash a problem than step up and handle it", which might result in them losing their home if she walks out. McKinnon, so movingly memorable in his walk on appearance at the end Take Shelter as Shannon's older sibling, unable to pull his brother back from the brink of insanity but urging him to "take care of your family and handle your business" is the embodiment of Nichols' recurrent theme here, struggling just as hard to handle it all as Shannon before him. It's a vulnerable, subtly affecting performance, a father's compassion for his son plain, even as he's being disobeyed and disrespected. It's a relationship that deepens every time the two actors share the screen, gathering tremendous emotional momentum as it rolls along with the same deliberate pacing that is customary to all Nichols' films.
If that human element gets a little lost in a third act shootout that's staged like something out of a nineties Van Damme action sequence (something no-one could have ever expected from a Nichols picture), the end goes out on a high and bittersweet note. For the second time, Ellis is seen riding in the bed of his father's truck through the small town he once felt trapped in. Through his experiences with homeless Mud, he now sees the town for everything he is and everything he takes for granted, including his family, who fractured though they may be, love him in a way that Mud can only wax poetic about without ever claiming to have had it reciprocated.
Nichols achieves this lyrical intensity of feeling so organically and without manipulation that you simply can't imagine the future of American cinema without him.
My thanks aren't enough for Jeff Nichols squeezing us into his schedule at the very last minute and Victoria Cox for arranging the interview below. As ever, the video is designed to be viewed full screen at 720p HD, which can be selected from the tools menu (the one with the small gear icon) once the video is playing.