Review – Mud

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic third feature evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape.

A serious contender for this year's Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls' lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today's cinematic landscape

A serious contender for this year’s Great American Film, Jeff Nicholls’ lyrical, poetic Mud evokes a timeless quality all-too-rare in today’s cinematic landscape

Nicholls has quietly positioned himself among the most visionary and essential directors at work today with his striking 2007 debut Shotgun Stories and his belated follow-up, the disturbing and astonishing Take Shelter (2011).

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

The incredible boat in a tree in Mud

In both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, their leading characters (played each time by the mesmeric Michael Shannon) are driven by an almost insane conviction. That same dogmatic approach is adopted by Mud (Matthew McConaughey), the charismatic fugitive living out on a small island in the Mississippi River who befriends inquisitive teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Mud has risked his freedom by returning to the area in which he grew up to be reunited with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but a group of killers arrive in town looking to avenge a past crime by Mud.

Nicholls has been quick to acknowledge the debt the film owes to Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in the overtly Finn/Tom Sawyer relationship between Ellis, who lives on a river boat with his squabbling parents (played by the excellent Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) first meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in Mud

The 14-year-old Ellis is an idealist who’s obsessed with reuniting Mud and Juniper because he believes in the power of love. As young teenagers, the concept of true love can be all-encompassing and Ellis acts with such doggedness in order to counterbalance the failing relationship of his parents. Likewise, he gets a tough lesson in the ways of love courtesy of an older girl he falls for.

The love of Mud's life, Junniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

The love of Mud’s life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) in Mud

Mud brings to mind Terence Malick in its penchant for the Magic Hour (and its fascination with nature) and Nicholls with long-time director of photography Adam Stone captures a string of breathtaking shots. The relationship with Malick doesn’t end there; Mud’s producer Sarah Green worked on The Tree of Life, while Sheridan was given his debut in that film.

Jeff Nicholls' long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

Jeff Nicholls’ long-time partner Michael Shannon plays Galen in Mud

He only has a limited filmography, but Sheridan is already showing himself as a young actor with a lot of promise. It’s a demanding role and he brings a lot of maturity to it. All he wants is for people to be happy and for things to be in order, so you can feel his pain when he realises life is much harder to get a handle on.

Maintaining his remarkable career renaissance (aka, his McConaisance), McConaughey is a revelation in the title role. Once the butt of many a joke for his languid, cheque-grabbing performances in duds like Failure to Launch, McConaughey of late has returned to the high watermark he achieved in the likes of Dazed and Confused and Lone Star. Lovelorn, scared, but determined also, his Mud is not so very different from Ellis.

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

Mud (Matthew McConaughey) tries to save his skin in Mud

The excellent supporting cast includes Shannon as Neckbone’s placid Uncle Galen (as far removed from Take Shelter‘s Curtis LaForche as you can get) and the impeccable Sam Shepard as Tom, who may or may not be a former CIA agent living off the grid in the Mississippi swamps.

Just as Malick managed to capture the coming of age adventure of adolescence in The Tree of Life, so too does Nicholls here. When we see a boat stuck up a tree (Mud’s temporary home), we marvel instead of questioning the unlikelihood of what we’re watching; such is the power of Nicholls’ persuasive vision.

The slightly fumbled ending doesn’t detract from what is a work of true poetry from Nicholls. Much like last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild, Mud is a real one-off that will stay with you for a long time after.

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London Film Festival 2011 – Chapter 7

Out of all the days of the festival, this was the one I was most looking to as it had two of the films I was desperate to see – and boy did neither of them let me down.

Mathieu Kassovitz has never quite managed to reach the same heights as his hard-hitting debut feature La Haine (1995). In fact he was fast turning into a hack for hire with such lightweight US genre fare as the terrible Halle Berry ‘shocker’ Gothika (2003) and Vin Diesel-starring sci-fi dud Babylon AD (2008).

Well, Kassovitz is back in France and back to his best with the searing, heavyweight political thriller Rebellion, which chronicles an incident in 1988 in the French colony of New Caledonia when 27 hostages were taken by a group of indigenous guerilla fighters seeking independence, and the bloody military rescue operation that subsequently took place.

Rebellion

Kassovitz films the drama through the eyes and experiences of Philippe Legorjus (played by the director himself), a Captain with the French GIGN counter-terrorist special forces, which were called on to assist the army with tracking down the ‘insurgents’ and freeing the hostages.

Legorjus and his men are primarily trained to deal with hostage-takers through negotiation, but the Captain quickly gets the impression that talking isn’t the number one goal of the military brass and French minister Bernard Pons (played by Daniel Martin), especially when there’s a presidential election taking place in France and incumbent President Fran├žois Mitterrand and his opponent Jacques Chirac are trying to out-do each other over their tough stances on the unfolding crisis.

Legorjus nevertheless tries to make contact with the group holding the hostages and succeeds after he is himself taken hostage. He wins the hard-earned trust of leader Alphonse Dianou (Iabe Lapacas) and is set free, promising to do what he can to give the group a platform in which to put their case for independence forward.

With the situation still tense, Legorjus works around the clock trying to convince the powers that be that the hostage-takers are willing to negotiate, but keeps running into brick walls until time runs out and a full military assault is ordered. With no time left, Legorjus realises he must betray Dianou’s trust in an effort to save as many of the hostages as he can.

Counting down over the course of 10 days until the dramatic, bloody assault on the cave where the hostages are being held, there’s a growing sense of inevitability that Legorjus is fighting a losing battle.

There are pointed remarks sprinkled throughout the film as to where this path is headed; when Legorjus tells a lawyer living on the island that the order to attack has been given, he asks the captain incredulously “the government wouldn’t do that would they?”. Another moment comes earlier in the film when Legorjus reminds his men that the population of New Caledonia are officially French citizens and therefore not ‘the enemy’. Needless to say these words ring hollow later in the film.

Thought-provoking and provocative, the anger of the film seeps out of every frame. It’s likely to cause controversy when it is released in France in November, but there should be no mistaking that this is brave, prescient film-making of the highest order.

Michael Shannon has in the space of just a few short years broke out from bit parts to become one of America’s most exciting acting talents.

His piercing stare and intense eyes singled him out for parts as unhinged lunatics in films such as Bug (2006) and Revolutionary Road (2008), for which he was Oscar-nominated. It probably wasn’t until he was cast as prohibition agent Nelson Van Alden in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire that he was allowed to properly broaden his horizons and show there was more to him than that.

This has continued in 2011 with Return, the disappointing indie drama also shown at the festival which he nevertheless gave a thoughtful, restrained performance as the husband of a soldier returning from a tour of duty, and now Take Shelter.

Take Shelter

Shannon plays Curtis LaForche, a loving husband to wife Samantha (the ubiquitous Jessica Chastain) and deaf daughter Hannah (Tova Stewart). He’s your classic everyman, a guy doing the best he can for his family through his job at a sand-mining company in a small Ohio town.

But all is not well with Curtis. He is being plagued by apocalyptic dreams – massive storm clouds gather overhead; rain resembling motor oil falls from the sky; masses of birds fly ominously above and crazed strangers attack him and his daughter.

The dreams are so real to Curtis that he becomes convinced they are something far more frightening – visions of things to come. With these terrifying thoughts running through his mind Curtis gets to work on beefing up the storm shelter at the back of the house. At the same time he weighs up whether he is succumbing to the same mental illness that has left his mother in a home for the past 25 years.

To this end, he goes to the library to check if he has the symptoms and goes to see a counsellor on his doctor’s advice. At first the sedatives he is given to help him sleep seem to work, but then the dreams return, more frightening than ever and he re-doubles his efforts to get the shelter ready for what he is convinced is the storm to end all storms. However, his actions have serious ramifications on his friends who think he’s lost his mind, on his job and with his wife, who struggles to understand why Curtis seems so hell-bent on bankrupting them.

Shannon and writer-director Jeff Nicholls worked before on Nicholls’ debut feature Shotgun Stories (2007) and there’s clearly an understanding between the two of them on how to get the best out of each other. Shannon turns in a career-best performance as a man holding on by his fingertips in an unsafe world, who is struggling to comprehend the visions he is having and unsure whether he is protecting his family from harm or putting them in harm’s way by his actions.

Chastain is given a more rounded role than the angelic, ethereal one she played in Terrence Mallick’s The Tree of Life earlier this year and does a fine job, although quite why the scene in which Curtis finally tells her what’s going on doesn’t allow her a response is a bit mystifying.

The dream sequences are especially unsettling, while the ending, which makes you reassess everything you’ve seen before, is sure to be a talking point for those watching it. And watch it you should.