(Jeff Nichols, USA, 2013)
While not without it's flaws, and acknowledging that some of its flaws are significant, Nichols' third and most ambitious feature is a remarkably, even astonishingly accomplished. My sense is that a lot of critics missed a big chunk of what Nichols was going for (although Denby, for once, was right on the money), mistakenly believing that Mud was meant to be a straightforward coming-of-age story, a polished but convention-bound work of classical naturalism. But, like his two previous features, Nichols has much more than formal mastery on his mind. As far as that mastery goes, however, it's worth mentioning that Nichols deserves to be recognized as among the very best directors working today. He's a savant with actors, and his visual sensibility, his razor-sharp instincts for tone, pace, suspense, are nearly unparalleled; there aren't many American peers that come to mind (David Fincher and Alexander Payne pop up, which is mighty good company). Nichols is also a screenwriter par excellence, evincing a flawless ear for dialogue (particularly that of his chosen milieu of the hardscrabble, deteriorating South) and a supple, intuitive way with characters.
First, to note what doesn't work: the film tries to do too much. It attempts to be both humble and grandiose; both a gritty, "authentic" work of regional indie cinema, and a nearly mythic rendering of certain American tropes, crafted with the seamless proficiency of the Classical Hollywood but displaying the naturalism and self-conscious lyricism of 70s Independent cinema. All of these ingredients make for a heady brew, and at times, several of them clash. There are moments of quiet, visual beauty that approach Malick-level grace, but they make the more familiar deployment of story information feel rote. The disconnect between relative unknowns and the high-wattage movie stars is present, although Nichols manages to harness this as an expression of the story's mythic undertones. McCaughnnehy (who is excellent, here, with the right mixture of bronzed charisma and boyish naivete) and Witherspoon belong to a different world, but this makes sense within the world of Mud. After all, these people are fantasy characters, idealized projections of Ellis's adolescent psyche. The world of this movie, like a fairy tale, is an in-between world, a river world; boundaries are fluid, and there are appearances and disappearances that can't be explained. When the bad guys come to town, with their shiny cars and their odd, sinister prayer circle, Nichols doesn't worry himself with trying to convince us that any of this would, or could, really happen, even in the funky deep South.
Despite all of this, and the way the film skirts mawkishness in its portrayal of Ellis as an idealistic romantic, there is a surfeit of wonders to be found. Like many a great artist, Nichols understands that the big picture comes alive only when it's made up of a miniature universe of precise details, and his attention to those details can only be called loving. This is bighearted, sincere cinema, and whatever missteps Nichols makes in realizing his grand canvas are more than redeemed by his successes. While it doesn't have all the trimmings of radical cinema, it it's own quiet way, Mud is indeed testing the boundaries of cinema. How much myth can an ostensibly realistic piece of storytelling contain, especially in these bleak, rationalist days? In literature, the fabulist strains magical realism gave way to postmodernism, and mercurial inventiveness was replaced with paranoid fantasy and ironic posing. Nichols' cinema has an element of the enduring structures of fables and myths, which cinema never really gave up, although it's lately been under-utilized. This strength, which is as contemporary as anything, and perhaps more deeply needed than we might be comfortable admitting, combined with his considerable instinct for naturalism, portends very exciting things for the future.