Sundance 2013: Mud review


Premièring towards the end of last year’s Cannes Film Festival when the majority of critics had long left the sun and splendour of the Croisette, indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols’ highly anticipated Mud (2012), his follow-up to 2011’s Take Shelter, somehow fell off the cinematic map on both sides of the Atlantic. Almost a year later, audiences at this year’s Sundance London film and music festival will finally get to see whether Nichols is able to maintain his steady rise to prominence as one of America’s most auspicious new voices. Much like his remarkable debut, 2007’s Shotgun Stories, Mud sees Nichols return to his Arkansas roots.

Set within a small fishing community, teenage friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) embark on a journey to a nearby island to investigate a sail boat caught high up in a tree, having being washed ashore during a recent storm. Here they discover a clandestine refugee going by the name of ‘Mud’ (Matthew McConaughey continuing his recent resurgence with yet another remarkable performance). Despite his dishevelled appearance, the two boys decide to help the stray out whilst he awaits the arrival of his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). However, when Mud’s dubious history becomes more transparent, the boys find themselves in a precarious situation.

Whilst Nichols’ latest endeavour may be named after McConaughey’s squalid southern hick, the film is very much told through the eyes of Ellis, with this wise-beyond-his-year’s protagonist and brazen friend thrust into adulthood through a series of violent and treacherous events. Mud sees Nichols expand upon his cinematic enquiry into the complexities of masculinity in contemporary America. Not unlike Andrew Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), Nichols manages to present us with both the strengths and weaknesses of the gender. He recaptures those juvenile instincts which often remain after adolescence by presenting us with a story of boys forced to become men in a world festering with immaturity.

This accelerated coming-of-age tale is, much like Nichols’ previous output, poetically told through beautifully captured, sweeping landscapes that perfectly lace this barren landscape with all the complexities and contradictions which govern modern life. Imbuing the storytelling framework of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the distinctive cinematic storytelling tropes of a western, Mud takes elements of Sam Peckinpah’s Wild West phase with The Night of the Hunter’s dark examination of morality, ending up with an emotive drama moulded in a similar fashion to the very best examples of American storytelling.

With a strong focus on character development, Mud’s steady pace may alienate those drawn to Nichols after becoming enamoured with the dramatic punctuation of Take Shelter’s apocalyptic doom-mongering. This is also – it would be fair to say – undeniably a film about men, made by men, that could well struggle to find much of a female audience. However, it’s still brilliantly refreshing to see Nichols revisit his origins whilst further cementing himself as a one of new America cinema’s most exciting, emerging directorial talents.

The 2nd Sundance London film and music festival takes place from 25-28 April, 2013. For more of our Sundance London 2013 coverage, simply follow this link.

Patrick Gamble