If Take Shelter was the confirmation of American filmmaker Jeff Nichols, Mud sees the director facing the "growing pains" of someone who is stretching, exploring the territory he staked out for himself. Though his third feature remains solidly grounded in his eye for the small-town, working-class communities of his native South, Mud is also a more expansive, more conventionally narrative work, and his first film with "proper" film stars - namely Matthew McConaughey, in another of his astounding run of roles that have reminded people of how good an actor he can be (Bernie, Magic Mike, The Paperboy).

     Mr. McConaughey exudes the right amount of charm, doubt, vulnerability and determination required by his role as Mud, running for his life after killing a man and found out in a little island in an Arkansas riverbed by two local teenagers. Though he's nominally the title hero, Mud is actually the tale of Ellis (the extraordinary Tye Sheridan), the quieter and most thoughtful of the two kids, as he decides to help Mud rebuild a boat shipwrecked on the islet after a storm to escape with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon in a brief supporting role). Mr. Nichols leisurely tells his story as a coming-of-age tale of a kid stuck between romance and reality; Ellis hears the call of the wide open spaces of his backyard and of the adventure hiding just beyond the river bend, and his choice to help the larger-than-life Mud is reaction and response to the disappointment of the real life around him, with feuding parents threatening to divorce and the very real possibility that his father will lose his livelihood if they do. Since his parents' love story is on the way out, Ellis is determined to make sure Mud's will come true, come with may.

     Mr. Nichols may play it out a bit too leisurely (the film comes in at slightly over two hours) but, given this is a tale of the South, it makes entire sense, especially the way he roots it in the communities scattered by the riverside as opposed to the more urbane, boxed environments of the city. Just as the director is exploring the narrative limits of his Southern tales, so is Ellis walking blind into whatever life is throwing at him - and any issues the film's length may create are more than made up for by the director's attention to mood (laidback, heavy with foreboding), tempo and cast (every single supporting role is smartly sketched in just a couple of scenes). Mud may not be as striking as Take Shelter, and it may not extend Mr. Nichols' reach as much as we'd all like him to, but if all tentative steps forward were as confident as this we'd all be much better off. And it's a great movie from one of the most consistent American filmmakers working at the moment.

Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Jay McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Paul Sparks, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Director and screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Cinematography: Adam Stone (colour, widescreen)
Music: David Wingo
Designer: Richard A. Wright
Costumes: Kari Perkins
Editor: Julie Monroe
Producers: Sarah Green, Aaron Ryder, Lisa Maria Falcone  (Everest Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions and Filmnation Entertainment)
USA, 2012, 131 minutes

Screened: DVD, Lisbon, October 27th 2013


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