Ostensibly, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ Mud is about the titular character, played by Matthew McConaughey, who’s on the run from the law and the family of a man he killed for love of a woman, Juniper, played by a bedraggled Reese Witherspoon. That’s a fine, if ordinary, foundation for a thriller — though this is no ordinary movie by any stretch. In fact, Mud isn’t even about the character Mud; instead, it’s a coming-of-age story that’s part mystery, fable, and thriller.
Beneath it all lies a love story — indeed, several love stories, all tied together through the heart of a young boy called Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan in an accomplished performance): a witness to the death of love in his family, Ellis feels it in his heart and is willing to do anything, however dangerous, to prove to himself that love is real and worth fighting — and even dying — for, if that love is deep and true.
Mud: ’A remarkably good movie’
Mud is a remarkably good movie. Unlike Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ highly impressive feature debut, Mud is crafted in the style of a new wave of filmmaking known as Southern Gothic, which actually isn’t so much "new" as resurgent — and perhaps modernized by a number of young country-born filmmakers, among whom Nichols is most certainly one.
As a reference, Mud will fit quite nicely into your movie collection alongside Billy Bob Thornton’s One False Move and Sling Blade, and equally well next to adaptations of Tennessee Williams or Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain), including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. High praise, yes, but not hyperbole, for Mud is a very good combination of Southern Gothic lore and solid filmmaking.
Jeff Nichols’ Mud and the Southern Gothic genre
Among other elements, language is key in the Southern Gothic genre, right down to individual words — some of which mean nothing outside of the county where they were coined, yaherdme? (Which is actually three words condensed to pose one Southern Gothic question: "You heard me?")
It’s a language that rings true because it is. It can be found in the films of this new wave, including That Evening Sun, written and directed by Scott Teems of Georgia; Bloodworth, written and directed by Shane Dax Taylor of Kentucky; and Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols of Little Rock, Arkansas. This style of writing when spoken by those who understand it is exquisite, but requires a speaker of the language, not an imitator; as a result, another requirement of Southern Gothic filmmaking is to cast actors who can speak the language.
Thus, Southern Gothic films feature Southern-born actors because they are from these (or similar) places, and know the languages and the characters they are portraying in a personal way. Matthew McConaughey is a Texas boy, Reese Witherspoon is from New Orleans, and Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, the film’s actual leads, are Southern boys with Southern sensibilities as well.
Lastly, Southern Gothic filmmaking is very much about place. Mud is set in Jeff Nichols’ home state of Arkansas along the Mississippi river — Mark Twain’s river — full of cottonmouths and muddy isles that disappear with the river’s rise and reappear when it recedes, thus revealing something previously unseen everyday. Ultimately, Mud is a Southern story wherein the sense of place is as important as plot points and character arcs.
Nichols knows these places and he films them with the interest and care of a person who is shooting home movies — because he is. The final result is that Mud is as beautiful to watch as it is to listen to, and feel kinship to, whether you’re from the South or just Southern at heart.
Mud (2013). Director and Screenplay: Jeff Nichols. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker.
Image of Matthew McConaughey in Jeff Nichols’ Mud: Roadside Attractions.