DAILY | Cannes 2012 | Jeff Nichols’s MUD

“To sling the word ‘familiar’ at Mud, a languid coming-of-age tale bathed in wild honey and late afternoon light, is really only half a criticism,” writes Guy Lodge at In Contention. “To some extent, the film wants to you to recognize it: it’s steeped in a rich tradition of American boy-to-man storytelling, its earthy values usually pinned to the rural landscape, that runs from Mark Twain to Stand By Me. Both are valid—and, as the film reaches critics beyond the Croisette, sure to be inescapable—reference points for Nichols’s essentially modest but rather self-indulgently extended study of Southern masculinity in both its formative and corrupted states. 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the film’s serious-minded but risk-favoring protagonist, is clearly constructed as a kind of modern-day Huckleberry Finn, from his river-dwelling explorer’s sense to his independent moral compass.”

Ellis and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) “are Arkansas teenagers with problems at home and nothing to do all summer long but zoom around on their motor scooter exploring.” The Guardian‘s Peter Bradshaw: “One hot day they take a boat out to a deserted island in the Mississippi where a recent flood has surreally dumped a boat up in the trees. The boys are all set to make this their own private treehouse. But then they discover food and dirty magazines. Somebody else lives here, hiding away, and that is a strange dishevelled man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a grinning, garrulous guy who befriends these lonely and unhappy boys and makes them his special secret friends. But back on the mainland, they see Mud’s face on a Wanted picture—and danger looms.”

“Ellis decides to help Mud reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s fair-weather lover,” writes Simon Abrams at the Playlist. “Juniper is, in other words, not the ‘pretty’ and loyal person Mud makes her out to be, either. In that sense, it’s essential for Ellis’s growth as a character for him to reluctantly see for himself just how unfaithful Juniper is (a bar scene that establishes this point is especially tedious).” All in all, “Nichols’s underwhelming follow-up to the masterfully visceral Take Shelter, is both a shallow and contrived coming of age story. While both Shelter and Shotgun Stories, Nichols’s promising debut feature, explore their respective characters’ motives and emotions, Mud instead offers pat sentiments and bland bathos.”

“Still, there is much to admire here,” finds Robbie Collin in the Telegraph. “McConaughey invests the title role with a gravelly drawl and quaggy charisma and both of the youngsters are excellent (Sheridan has only appeared previously in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and Lofland is making his screen debut). Nichols also seasons his script with a generous shaking of good ol’, down-home, Southern-fried symbolism, including river pearls, ominous snakes and a sediment-sifting diver played by Michael Shannon, who has become a bit of a talismanic presence for the director. Adam Stone, Nichols’ regular cinematographer, shoots the delta in anamorphic 35mm, and draws out the timeless beauty of the landscape with its hazy light and soil the colour of rust and oxidized copper.”

“Stone contributed to David Gordon Green’s early pics,” notes Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “That tangible sense of place owes largely to the contributions of Green’s longtime production designer, Richard A. Wright, as adept at building houses on water as he is putting boats in trees. Stone complements Wright’s work by adopting a looser, more organic visual style, collaborating with Steadicam samurai Matthew Petrosky to bridge the claustrophobia of ‘civilization’ with open-air footage shot either on water or at the remote island hideout.”

More from Alex Billington (FirstShowing, 9/10), Mike Goodridge (Screen; “Nichols is becoming one of the most assured US auteurs at work today”), and Jason Solomons (Guardian, 5/5). Nigel M. Smith talks with Nichols for indieWIRE and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Eugene Hernandez has notes from the press conference.

Updates, 5/27: “Some film critics have described Jeff Nichols’s Mud as the perfect way to end Cannes 2012, a fun and accessible slice of cinematic Americana.” Glenn Heath Jr. at Press Play: “But considering the film’s hammy sentimentality and bogus emotional connections, I can’t think of a more disappointing send off.”

Still, the Hollywood Reporter‘s Todd McCarthy finds Mud to be “a well carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber.”

“Because Nichols’s previous film was the offbeat, heavily metaphorical Take Shelter, some are bridling at his unapologetic embrace of the Hollywood three-act structure,” writes Mike D’Angelo at the AV Club, “and it’s true that Mud neither breaks new ground in the coming-of-age genre nor feels compelled to disguise its familiar story beats. It’s just a reasonably good yarn, heavier on incident than psychological acuity, and I suspect it’ll get a kinder reception once it’s not weighted down with the lofty expectations of Cannes’ Competition slate.”

Updates, 5/29: “Credit hometown boy Nichols with getting the look and feel of rural Arkansas right,” writes target=”_blank”>Budd Wilkins at the House Next Door. “Alas, that’s about the only thing he does manage to nail down in this sloppy, shaggy, bloated saga. Mud is the kind of movie peopled with fascinating peripheral characters, played by the shamefully underused Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, who could have been the focus of a far odder duck of a film.”

For Time Out New York‘s David Fear, “the difference between this and Nichols’s older works is practically night and day.” Mud is “a whimpering end to a bang-up 2012 Cannes, but hey: there’s always next year.”

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