“One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it.” So wrote Chekhov to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev. This simple metaphor has endured as a dependable rule about foreshadowing events in fiction, be it in a stage play, a book or a movie. In cinema – especially American cinema – it seems to have been taken literally. There is so often a gun.
In Mud, the third film from Jeff Nichols, we are shown a pistol in the first act. We know instinctively it promises bloodshed to come. I’m going to spoil something for you now, okay? Are you okay with that? Tough, here it comes. That pistol never gets fired. A whole lot of other guns do though.
Mud tells the tale of two boys living in Arkansas alongside the great Mississippi river. Chiefly the focus is on Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14 years-old. He’s a good kid, if a little rambunctious, prone to reacting with his fists. Yet he is a thoughtful, sensitive lad. His home life is imploding with a kind of quiet, sad inevitability. His father (the oft-under-appreciated Ray McKinnon) is losing his river trade to the bank, his mother (Sarah Paulson) has instigated a divorce. Ellis’ best friend is Neckbone (what a great name) played with terrific seriousness by newcomer Jacob Lofland.
The two boys take a trip out to a small nearby island in the hopes of finding a boat stuck in a tree that they’ve heard tell of. They find the boat, sure enough. But they are found by its new resident; an enigmatic drifter going by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
McConaughey’s about-turn in the last couple of years from rom-com dilettante to heavyweight acting presence has been joyous (I always knew he had it in him) and it continues here. The man is in a roll. And whilst his Mud may not be as big and theatrical as his striking Killer Joe, it may be his most measured and quietly impressive work yet. Keeping in mind he was the best thing about The Paperboy by quite some distance, McConaughey appears to be making all the right choices right now.
That aforementioned subtlety is hardly surprising considering this is Jeff Nichols’ new flick. Only three features into his career, and Nichols has forged a justly earned reputation for high-quality cinema. His movies are slow, thoughtful and immaculately crafted, centred by beautifully naturalistic performances. Nichols resists melodrama as often as he can, preferring to look for truth in difficult situations. His work is without big thrills or confetti because he doesn’t need them. In keeping, Mud is understated and all-the-more captivating because of that.
As good as McConaughey is, he has met his match in young Tye Sheridan. His Ellis is a revelation, and can be added to the very best pained young heroes American cinema has to offer. Like Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, Nichols’ movie takes children seriously and the results are superb. When Ellis learns that Mud is waiting on that island for his long-time sweetheart Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) he immediately becomes a kindred spirit to Mud. He might not be able to save his own parents’ marriage, but he’ll do whatever he can to reunite these larger-than-life romantic figures that have happened into his world.
Nichols sets this all up with a beautifully rendered sense of the supernatural playing in his characters’ lives. Mud himself may be more spirit than man, seemingly appearing and disappearing at will. He first speaks of Juniper and of her hands which are tattooed with nightingales after seeing a flock of birds. He might almost have conjured her into existence at that very moment of inspiration. This underplayed sense of wonder and Southern spirituality makes Mud feel like the kind of film Terrence Malick might make if he weren’t preoccupied building monumental collages instead. Mud is as beautiful to look at as this year’s To The Wonder, but far more engaging.
For its first hour Mud truly sails. It feels magical. But Nichols does come a little unstuck as his movie rolls onward. The sedate pacing – though commendable in this age of instant gratification – is perhaps a little too tepid, and as Ellis and Neckbone’s trips back and forth between the island and ‘civilisation’ stack-up, Mud veers dangerously close to humdrum repetition and listlessness. And then there’s that loaded rifle on the stage. When it does go off, it goes off with one hell of a bang. It’s a little too loud for the movie that preceded it, and feels almost comically out-of-place. Imagine McCabe & Mrs Miller with the shoot-out from The Wild Bunch.
Nichols also infuriatingly avoids what would’ve been some delicious ambiguity – the kind that made Take Shelter work so well – by tying up loose ends that would’ve been more fittingly left unknotted.
But never mind. These are small-if-significant niggles in what is, largely, a hugely impressive American film. Nichols tells stories that feel rich like novels, his characters are full and complex and they’re photographed with a lyrical quality that recalls William Faulkner or early Cormac McCarthy. What these great writers did with words, Nichols is doing with a movie camera, and it’s a continuing pleasure seeing them unfurl. He may not have quite got the balance perfected in Mud, but I for one will certainly be back to see what he shows us next. Nichols’ promise is, itself, a loaded rifle. I can’t wait for it to truly ignite. When it does, we’ll have an absolute masterpiece.