Jeff Nichols’s coming-of-age, southern fairy tale is the year’s best film. So why has everyone forgotten about it?
Helluva thing, a boat in a tree
Mud, released this past May to rave reviews, begins with two best friends: love-dumb Ellis and wisecracking Neckbone, finding a boat in a tree. It’s high concept, sure, but what unfolds is a story of loyalty, imagination, hope, and love. Ellis sees his family crumbling, as his parents, with lovely supportive turns by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, are splitting up, resulting in the loss of his family home on the water. Ellis is desperate to find the meaning of love to make sense of his family drama and to become a man. When he and Neckbone meet the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey) on the beach, a pact to help the stranger turns into a search for the meaning of life.
When you see cinema at its best, you imagine the captain at its helm is a seasoned pro. One who has seen the ups and downs of the business and has lived long enough to rise above it. So it is a “helluva thing” to note that the best film of 2013 is only Jeff Nichols’ third. Bursting onto the scene with Shotgun Stories and continuing to astound audience and take risks with Take Shelter, Nichols has found a true and sound artistic voice with Mud, and yet, we have all forgotten.
Why, then, has Mud been nearly shut out of all major awards? Not an easy answer, but I offer a few theories:
1. The film premiered to audiences at the Cannes Film Festival…in 2012.
Like Spring Breakers (my pick for worst film of the year), Mud premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, and Jeff Nichols was nominated for the Palme d’Or. Critics raved, but that was last festival season.
2. The film was released in May.
After a rollout that began at the 2013 SXSW Film Festival, where it again screened to rave reviews, Mud played to art houses and then a wide release in May. It opened alongside Iron Man 3.
Some films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which opened over spring break in 2004, can hang around in the minds of critics, but with a crowded slate this year –more on that in a moment – Mud left the minds of the Hollywood Foreign press, SAG, the DGA, WGA, and most likely, the Academy. The Spirit Awards have honored the film with the Robert Altman Award, and Jeff Nichols has been nominated for Best Director, but this film should be cleaning up. There is nothing like it, and when that happens, why should a film about excess replace it in your mind? Even if The Wolf of Wall Street is directed by Martin Scorsese.
3. Dallas Buyers Club
Matthew McConaughey’s odyssey to change the course of his career can be traced back to the Lincoln Lawyer on through Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and the Paperboy. No longer feeling the need to simply fill theatre space schlecking romantic comedies with Kate Hudson, McConaughey has been very choosy with his roles, coming back to what he began in films like Frailty and Lone Star.
2013 was essentially flooded with tremendous performances by McConaughey. He just might win an Oscar for his portrayal of AIDS patient turned drug-crusader Ron Woodroof in Dallas Buyers Club. And because Matthew McConaughey is so linked with Mud, though it is truly Tye Sheridan’s film, no one remembers the other films he has done. Critics refuse to have another Kate Winslet or Meryl Streep. And it’s David Wooderson for f-’s sake! If Mud is honored, how can they not honor the man who played Mud….and so the film exits the mind.
4. Mud is a southern gothic fairy tale in an age of Spring Breakers, Blue Jasmine, David O. Russell, and Gravity
Mud is simply different, and that is not always a good thing. Critics, especially the Academy, pick films that fit into a certain category: Epic. Biopic. War. Caper. Comedy (God forbid). Woody Allen.
Different is bad. Different upsets the order. This is not the Taratino-Gus Van Sant-Affleck/Damon-Mira Sorvino 1990’s.
5. The Force was extremely strong in this One
Quite frankly, films were better this year. Cate Blanchett brought me to my knees over Blue Jasmine. 12 Years a Slave is Oscar bait on a stick. Gravity. Dude…GRAVITY! Cuaron dared to be different, but he was different with former Oscar winners. And that ending is pretty bow-tied.
The Coen brothers are totally back with Inside Llewyn Davis. I didn’t love Silver Linings Playbook, and to some extent, American Hustle doesn’t quite work, but David O. Russell can lead a pack of brilliant performers with the best of them. August: Osage County got into my soul, thanks Meryl, and independent films shined right from January with Fruitvale Station and Frances Ha.
Nebraska is Alexander Payne’s best work, as is All is Lost of Redford’s long career. There’s Her and Hanks and Leto and Emma Thompson. This year is crowded.
But really. Truly. Mud rises above all of these other films because it is complete. It is not just about its great performances or writing or framing or the fact it is shot on FILM (yep). A special film in its totality.
Final Thoughts: If you have not taken the time, see this film. Your life will be richer for it. And I suppose that is the goal of the filmmaker: not to win awards or accolades, but to entertain, to bring people together.
Mud transcends audiences and demographics. It’s a film for the ages, and I, for one, cannot wait for Nichols’ next.