(US - 2013)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Jacob Lofland, Paul Sparks, Bonnie Sturdivant. (PG-13, 132 mins)
MUD, the third feature by Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols, continues to explore similar territory mined in his two previous works, 2008's SHOTGUN STORIES and 2011's TAKE SHELTER. In the gut-wrenching SHOTGUN, a small-town patriarch passes and the three sons by his second wife--who knew him as a loving, caring dad--clash with the three sons by his first wife, who remain bitter and resentful that their father abandoned them with their abusive mother and started his life over as a sober, born-again Christian, consciously choosing to have nothing to do with his first family. In TAKE SHELTER, the great character actor Michael Shannon (the oldest of the first set of brothers in SHOTGUN, and a Nichols regular) plays a rural Ohio husband and father who becomes obsessed with building a storm shelter in his backyard for reasons he can't explain but possibly have to do with his mother being diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia at the same age he happens to be. In his first two films, Nichols focuses on fractured, troubled families in rural settings, portraying them as real people instead of cliched, condescending caricatures. Nichols' characters face deep-seeded problems both psychological and genetic that stretch across generations and haunt them through their lives. MUD expands on these ideas and is simultaneously Nichols' most ambitious and most predictable work. It's raw and emotional and steadily balances a large cast of supporting characters, but being Nichols' most commercial film yet, it's also very calculated and calls its shots a little too loudly. When characters start suddenly talking about things like snakebites and antivenom, and saying that one guy "used to be a sharpshooter," then there's a pretty good chance those traits will come into play in the most crowd-pleasing way possible. That's not to say MUD isn't a well-made and engrossing film, because it is. But because Nichols is going for some crossover mainstream appeal, he doesn't so much "dumb it down" as he "unsubtly foreshadows."