Writer/director Jeff Nichols has now released three films. I've seen two of them ('Shotgun Stories' is in my Netflix queue), but he's quickly climbing to the top of my Favorite Filmmakers list. I was first introduced to Nichols in January 2011 when 'Take Shelter' premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I love walking blindly into films at Sundance without knowing what I'm about to see and with no expectations, which is how I went into 'Take Shelter.' If you haven't seen it, you need to. It's a must-see film. Although 'Take Shelter' didn't walk away with any awards, it was easily the best film that I saw there that year and is one of the very best films that I've ever seen at the festival.
Having had so much success blindly walking into 'Take Shelter,' I decided to do the same with 'Mud.' I took Mrs. Hickman out to an opening day Friday night showing. As I expected (and hoped), it proved to be a great idea. I deem 'Take Shelter' an American classic, which is the same praise I give to 'Mud.'
'Mud' is like a blend of 'Stand By Me' and 'Great Expectations.' The central character is a young boy named Ellis, who is played by 'The Tree of Life's Tye Sheridan. Having cast two 'Tree of Life' actors in his films (Jessica Chastain appears in 'Take Shelter'), if you can't tell, Nichols is quite the fan of Terrence Malick. Set in the river channels of Nichols' home state of Arkansas, the film opens with Ellis sneaking out of his riverboat home for an early morning adventure with his best friend Neckbone. Their adventure isn't far off from that of 'Stand By Me' – only instead of looking for a rumored dead body in the woods, they're heading to an island on the Mississippi river that's said to have a boat stuck high up in the branches of a tree.
Ellis and Neckbone almost immediately find the boat, only they find more than what they were expecting – a wanted fugitive is holed up inside it. Ellis and Neckbone are polar opposites in many ways. While Neckbone's common sense gives him the urge to get out of there as fast as possible, Ellis' curiosity gets the best of him. Played by Matthew McConaughey, the outlaw's name is Mud. Boy, is it refreshing to see McConaughey play an actual character again. Mud knows that the island makes for a great hideout, but that's not the only reason he's there. His childhood girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is supposed to meet him there. Once together again, they'll go on the run together.
While any kid – like Neckbone – would run from Mud and never look back, Ellis' innocent teenage romanticism takes over, making him want to do whatever it takes to reunite Mud with Juniper. With a strict and stern dad, you'd think that Mud would become a fatherly figure to Ellis, but Mud instead becomes like the seemingly cool older brother. Ellis and Neckbone make a pact with Mud that they will help Mud and Juniper escape. In return, Mud will leave "their" island and boat and never return so the boys can have their secret place for themselves. Little do they know that outside factors and truths will soon become known that make this a much more difficult task than originally believed.
'Mud' is one of those cinematic gems that you can watch several times and gain something new with each viewing. It's quite a bit more than your standard coming-of-age film; it's actually the deepest film that I've seen in some time. One of the major themes is loss. 'Mud' explores the many types of loss and the consequences of how we handle those hard times. There's the loss of innocence, the tearing down of fantastic youthful dreams for honest out-of-our control reality. Through a group of characters that span all ages and walks of life, it shows that we are all the same, that the important things taken from us as adults are just as heartbreaking as the seemingly important things taken from kids.
If you worry that I've explained too much about 'Mud,' fear not. I've been so vague that you can still walk into the film almost as blind as I did. There is so much more to it than I have explained that when you see it, the unspoiled content will surprise you.
Even with my glowing review, there's one small aspect of 'Mud' that doesn't sit well with me. 99 percent of 'Mud' is seen through the eyes of Ellis. We, the audience, literally only leave his side one time in the body of the film and once again as the film wraps up. I've seen 'Mud' twice now and the moment we leave Ellis' side for the first time, it pulls me right out of the film. What we see during that scene isn't exactly necessary, but it paves the way for the emotional impact of the wrap-up scene that leaves Ellis' side. I completely understand why it's there. I'm not a filmmaker, so I cannot say that the ending wrap-up could have been successfully achieved without it, but I wish that there had been another way to pull it off.
Because 'Mud' never played simultaneously on more than 960 screens (but still managed to earn $21.5 million at the domestic box office), I'm excited that it's now on Blu-ray and easily accessible for everyone. It's the type of film that I can't wait for others to see so that we can hash it out and dissect all of its many concepts and themes together. Don't miss this fantastic and unforgettable film. 'Take Shelter' may have been snubbed by the Academy, but I can't see Nichols being passed up again this year.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Lionsgate has given 'Mud' a Region A BD-50 release that includes a code for an Ultraviolet copy of the film. The disc is housed in a standard Elite keepcase that slides vertically into a cardboard slipcase. Be warned that because of the matte slipcase, any stickers that a retailer has placed on it will not come off without leaving a nasty residue. Such is the case with my Best Buy copy. Damn them. Printed on the bottom left corner of the cover art and slipcase is the "Certified Fresh" Rotten Tomatoes logo. Upon inserting the disc you're forced to watch the FBI warning and the commentary disclaimer, but can skip right over the Lionsgate vanity reel, Epix advertisement and trailers for 'Emperor,' 'The Lincoln Lawyer' and 'Winter's Bone.'
'Mud' carries a very strong 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode that's presented in a 2.35:1 aspect ratio. Aside from a handful of shots – not scenes – it's extremely close to high-def perfection.
There's an astounding amount of detail to be seen in 'Mud' – so much so that had the Blu-ray been my first viewing of the film, then I might have been distracted from enjoying the depth, meaning and themes that underlie the main story. Although shot on 35mm, the video quality is so crisp and clear that one could mistake it for digital. This clarity and the fine detail of the actors' porous and shiny faces allows you to feel the mugginess of the Arkansas humidity. When Mud and Neckbone make a deal, as Mud spits into his hand, countless particles of spit can be seen flying through the air. As Neckbone stands in the glaring sunlight, the texture of his buzzed hair is visible through the reflecting light. Scenes within Ellis' houseboat home reveal the coarseness of the warped and aged wooden walls. In every scene, there is fine detail to behold.
Being a fan and (as I understand it) friend of Terrence Malick, much of Nichols' visual style appears to be inspired by Malick. His shots are beautifully colorful, especially those set during the low sunlight of dusk or dawn. Those frames could easily pass as postcards or photographic art. The heightened video quality successfully lends itself to the overall tone.
Compression flaws aren't anywhere to be found, but there are a handful of problematic dark shots. The black levels are almost always consistently rich, showing off the deepest level of darkness; however, some nighttime shots appear to have been shot too dark, so the levels are brought up. Blacks turn into grays, but this flaw isn't common and the shots that carry it don't last long.
'Mud' has been given a solid 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. While it isn't full of wowing instances of demo-worthy sound, it's a subtle environmental mix that makes you a member of the river-dwelling ensemble.
No matter the setting, you can bet that the mix is going to transport you to that location. When you're on the river, you can hear the water splashing off the front of the boat, the engine revving with the rise and drop of each choppy swell. When on the island, you can hear water sloshing around and rushing past, as well as wind blowing through the chirp-filled trees and bugs creating an orchestra of nature sounds. When in town, light traffic is audibly passing through. While riding in a car down a long straight highway, road sounds naturally spread throughout all channels.
Music is equally dynamic. Vocals are always clear and clean, although sometimes not easy to understand due to thick southern accents. 'Mud' isn't the type of film to warrant jaw-dropping examples of imaging, but it's absolutely fitting for the movie's content.
Jeff Nichols' 2011 film 'Take Shelter' may have been snubbed by the Academy, but there's no way that they can dismiss his new film 'Mud.' In every aspect of filmmaking – writing, directing, acting, screenplay, music, cinematography, and so on – it's superb, nearly flawless. The entire package is so impressive that I truly believe it should be written in the books as an American classic. On the surface, it's a coming-of-age tale filled with genuine characters and moments. Below the surface, it's a commentary on parenthood/childhood and an exploration of loss and the consequence of our actions and over-reactions. As a writer, 'Mud' is such a cinematic gem that it makes me wish I could be commissioned to write an analytical essay about it. The Blu-ray's video quality is astoundingly sharp and nearly flawless. The audio mix impressively capitalizes on environmental effects, mixing them so well that they place you in the gorgeous locations with the characters. This release is light on special features, but the director's commentary track is enough to please any fan. After back-to-back out-of-the-park home runs with 'Take Shelter' and now 'Mud,' Nichols has quickly become one of my favorite young filmmakers and I cannot wait to see what he puts out next.