By Jake Howell

Cannes Competition Review: Mud

For the most part, Jeff Nichols’ third narrative drama Mud is an endearing film about how children view committed romantic relationships. It’s also a bit of a disappointment: fans of Nichols’ earlier, more intense work may find Mud’s story too naïve, too soft, and perhaps even too silly to properly enjoy it.

Matthew McConaughey plays Mud’s title role, a wanted man on the lam in rural Arkansas. He is met by Ellis and Neckbone, two precocious pre-teens channeling Mark Twain’s classic figures, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, who are out on a routine exploration expedition. Initially pegging him as a vagabond, the pair hear Mud’s sob story behind his crime–he shot a despicable man dead–and of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman Mud has been trying to marry. Viewing Mud’s quest for love as honorable—Ellis’ parents are in the process of divorcing each other – they agree to help Mud reunite with his former flame.

Ellis is played by up-and-coming Tye Sheridan, who looks amazingly different from when audiences first saw him in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Make no mistake: Sheridan’s Ellis goes toe-to-toe with the film’s major talent, effectively outclassing them in many aspects. Jacob Lofland’s Neckbone is no slump, either. These boys are given a lot of responsibility in Mud, but they handle the pressure with believable performances and uncommon competence. You likely won’t need to remember Sheridan’s name—it’s pretty clear he’ll be breaking hearts relatively soon–but Lofland should also continue to surprise and impress.

Where 2007’s Shotgun Stories was about violence and 2011’s Take Shelter reflected on fear, Mud’s primary concern is love. Nichols has gone on record saying Mud is a story that tries to capture the spirit of puppy crushes and first-time heartbreaks, and the film comes close to bottling these magical emotions. Not quite, but close: sadly, there are other aspects of Mud’s script that feel unexplained, generic, or otherwise laughable.

The narrative gaps in this film are more than problematic, and some of them are unintentionally funny. Despite a suitable performance, McConaughey’s Mud is entirely unexplained as a character, and the same diagnosis applies to Witherspoon’s Juniper. The problem here is that the audience never really knows their motivation for, well, anything: sure, the romance is authentic, but that doesn’t exactly matter when the characters are false. Mud, as a character, is actually more myth than real: he appears and vanishes from scene to scene, and somehow gains important information that the audience doesn’t see him learn. Are we watching an episode of “Lost”?

Given the clear talent exhibited in Nichols’ direction, the above issues are disappointing. However, a few things were very clear at the Cannes press conference for Mud: firstly – and most importantly – Jeff Nichols is a sincere storyteller, and you can tell he has only the best intentions with his narratives. Money and box office records aren’t a part of Nichols’ end goal, which is an extremely admirable (and increasingly rare) philosophy towards filmmaking. Even if the film tanks, Mud still means a lot to Nichols. He simply wants to tell stories that are personally important to him, and that’s respectable.

Nichols shouldn’t get a pass simply for being a nice guy, of course, but there is enough to like in Mud that the film gets one anyway. While this isn’t a movie that wants to do anything particularly new – it doesn’t, really—it has a lot of heart. In the end, despite the various plot holes—and there are many—it’s an earnest, youthful take on love’s many facets, which include divorce, betrayal, and rejection.

Because of these uncharacteristically upbeat messages, it would be easy to recommend Mud to younger audiences. However, in stark contrast, the film’s finale features some fairly graphic violence. Demographically speaking, it’s unclear who this movie is intended for, but then again, Nichols doesn’t appear to be too concerned with that. Still, it’s jarring.

For all its faults, Mud does exhibit all of the wonderful cinematographic and directorial qualities found in his earlier work, which help make up for a lackluster script. Nichols is in love with natural environments, and he does an excellent job at capturing contemporary rural America. The urban scenes look great, and the landscapes are seriously stunning. There are some legitimately awe-inspiring Steadicam shots in Mud, and they are a very welcome addition to Nichols’ directorial style. Mud also doesn’t shy away from reality: by naming names and filming actual places—like the town Piggly Wiggly, for example—the film gives the audience a good sense of what life in Arkansas is like, as there are subtleties in Mud that only a local could know. At least the milieu of Mud feels real!

Jeff Nichols quickly became one of my directors to watch after his mind-blowing sophomore feature Take Shelter. I am still quite fond of his work, including to some extents Mud, but there are more problems in his third feature than I am willing to ignore. As a whole, Mud has some elements of greatness—the craft, the performances, the sincere intentions behind it all—but the film sags from a less-impressive story than what Nichols is known for.

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2 Responses to “Cannes Competition Review: Mud”

  1. Bradley C. Byers says:

    I am puzzled by the strong contrast between your critique, which makes it seem like a movie we could easily walk away from, and the reports from Cannes of “rapturous applause” after the showing. Assuming that the Cannes audience is at least a tad more sophisticated than the typical mall theater crowd, why did they not object to the many plot holes and character development shortcomings noted here?

  2. Jake Howell says:

    Hi Bradley,

    I’d say you’re half right.

    “Mud” was screened in the morning, which means there was a healthy combination of both public and press in attendance. While I’m sure a few members of the press did give hearty applause, it is usually only heard from public attendees, who aren’t much different from your typical mall theater crowd. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.

    Most films at Cannes – regardless of their quality – will receive audible responses from audiences, which includes both boos and cheers. It’s traditional. (Plus, the film’s crew are usually sitting in the theater at the premiere. People clap for respect, too.)

    “The Tree of Life” was booed quite loudly at its morning premiere, but as we know Malick still won the Palme. In other words, it’s impossible to gauge a film’s merit based solely on how much applause it received at Cannes. Case in point: this year, “The Paperboy” reportedly got seven minutes of sustained applause, too. Yikes…

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon