Nichols - 2013 09 12 - Mud

United States 2013
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Running time: 130 minutes

The first Jeff Nichols film I saw was 2011’s TAKE SHELTER. I was a guy from Stark County, Ohio, whose edges grew abrasive every manic, San Francisco work week. And so, in some quiet weekend corner of the city, I’d burnish with light reflected from a silver screen. That day, Nichols showed me Ohio’s summer storms. Screen doors and split levels. A tormented pater familias in the Western Reserve. By hallucinating a massive storm on the horizon, he assuaged the psychic pain of a flagging economy and a family plunging into rack and ruin. The threat was so big and so elusive that his fragile ego had little choice but to externalize it. To make it tangible. Visible. Opposable. But was it really a hallucination or were those dead crows actually out there? How about those torrents? And the funnel clouds?

Nichols is a real bruiser. And I think MUD marks a certain subjective breakthrough in his scuffle with modernity. In it, he makes today’s most radical move: to position dramatic threats as fully exterior to his narrative’s main site of identification (Ellis). We have to stomach none of this tired, execrable message: “the true enemy was within himself.” Isn’t it a mantra that manages to busy us? To obsess us with our personal affairs and finances? To fall further into a bottomless river of self-improvement? No matter how it manifests, the problem is to be addressed in isolation, as if our problems were aberrations and not symptoms of something much bigger and more elusive, but radically outside of us.

An ailing spirit weighs heavy on the Arkansas town from which MUD’s protagonists hail. Broods of semi-aquatic pitvipers writhe in waterlogged mires along the riverbanks. Ellis is a kid all of thirteen. He’s as earnest and uncynical as Nichols’ camera. The bildungsroman unfolds and he navigates love’s pitfalls by vicariously identifying with the proliferation of men in his small town. Each with a different orientation to love. Each inscribing her successes and failures with pens of discrete character. This squeeze work of identification is the epiglottal action in the throat of Spirit. Existential options flow from one person to another. Today, we build dams at our borders in a mortified effort to preserve our individuality. We treat vicarious identification as if it were a pathology. To be anything less than sui generis is a fate worse than death. And this is how Nichols renders his young hero: more as a subject prone to a mired world and its inhabitants than as an individual within it. In so doing, Ellis matures and, paradoxically, individuates. Turns out the radical individual is a subject. A miracle. A boat in a tree. “A hell of a thing.”

A few more things I haven’t said enough about: MUD’s affecting performances. There’s Matthew McConaughey’s bouncy house charisma, Sam Shepard’s stone-wrought indignance, Tye Sheridan’s resilience, and Jacob Lofland’s world-weary wingmanship. And Nichols’ steady-cam tension which would be classical if it weren’t so aesthetically subversive. In a summer full of movies that proudly present their faded postmodern colors… in a time when audiences salute those same works with a swipe of the card and a snigger, we can be grateful for MUD.

12 September 2013