Mud (Jeff Nichols, 2013)
Opening and closing with boats hurtling along a river, Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a film bookended by a desire for freedom. On one side, two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, go looking for grown-up adventures to pass the time of summer, while on the other a mysterious fugitive, Mud, hides from gangsters on a secluded island, waiting for his chance to escape.
Nichols is a natural storyteller in a natural world, and Mud, like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter before it,sees him offer a richly detailed cross section of American families, only this time they’re fishermen, divers and scrap yard owners struggling to make ends meet on the river. These are the people left behind as the world changes, with their houses sold for development and their jobs made suddenly irrelevant.
Their way of life is quickly coming to an end, so it’s understandable, then, that their kids are trying to find something to do. It just so happens that their dealings with the titular fugitive give them more than they bargain for: stealing from junkyards, lying to the police and fighting hitmen are all par for the course, but they’re intentions are good. They’re trying to help a man in need, without judgment, and that’s what Mud is most obviously about: the moral growth of two boys in the backdrop of the American South.
But this is just one of the threads that make up this densely woven film. After all, Mud isn’t just a coming of age story. It’s about fathers and sons, husbands and wives, the pain of love, youthful adventure and a life lived on the river, but Nichols, as he has before, balances this richness of theme with a rare simplicity that renders Mud simultaneously complex and straightforward, calm and tumultuous, and an early frontrunner for American film of the year.