Jeff Nichols Explores the Cycle of First Love and Masculinity in His New Film ‘Mud’

When it comes to experiences that bind us together, there are few things more universal than heartbreak. Everyone remembers the first time it happened—the earth-shattering sadness and the way that painful fire burnt inside you for the very first time. You look back on that initial taste of love and remember the sweetness, the overwhelming, almost suffocating sensation that came from finally understanding what it truly means to need another human being. But in the natural progression of life, eventually that love ends or fades, and although it hurts like hell, you survive. Wounds mend, you meet someone else, and, in time, you’re able to start the cycle all over again. With his third film, writer and director Jeff Nichols explores this "cycle of first love," told through a fourteen-year-old boy experiencing his first heartbreak, inside the larger tale of a man stuck in first love’s loop—never having been able to move beyond his first love. "It’s kind of like Lolita in a less gross way," says Nichols, whose new film Mud may look one way on the surface, but is moved along by a powerful and emotional undercurrent.

As the follow-up to 2011’s psychological drama Take Shelter, Nichols’ Mud explores a similar rural American landscape, filled with ordinary people dealing with extreme circumstances, living normal lives until something creeps its way in and shatters their foundations. Written in the summer of 2008, Nichols finished the script for Mud alongside Take Shelter, but says he had been thinking of the former since college. "I always had Mud on my mind," says Nichols. "I was building towards Mud."
 
You can see what he means. Since his first feature, Shotgun Stories, Nichols has been slowly evolving on a larger scale. Mud feels like his most ambitious and fully-realized work yet, packing not only a wonderfully-crafted narrative but the emotion and heart that separates it from stereotypical southern tropes. When asked if his Arkansas upbringing made a large impact on him as a filmmaker, Nichols claims that "It defines who I am."  Setting his films in the worlds he grew up in, the worlds that his memories are steeped in, is just another way the talented director has differentiated his work.
 
"It was just real comfortable and really easy to close my eyes and write in that voice and in those places," he explains. "I didn’t have to do copious amounts of research, I could just imagine it." With that sense of imagination, Nichols tells the thrilling, adventurous, and emotional tale of a 14-year-old boy, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who happen upon a fugitive hiding out an an island in the middle of the Mississippi river near their home in Arkansas.
 
The boys meet the mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) after finding out that he’s been living in an abandoned boat in a tree that they’ve claimed as their own. The boys agree to help out Mud and bring him food while he’s on the lam, hiding from both the police and the shady men who are after him for a crime he’s committed. But all the while, he’s waiting to be reunited and run away with the woman he’s been in love with since he was a child, the woman with nightingales tattooed on her hands, Juniper ( Reese Witherspoon). It’s that romantic sentiment and commitment to his woman that Ellis connects with and admires in Mud as his own mother and father contemplate divorce and the future of their family, creating a bond between the young boy and the outlaw. Living across the river from Ellis is the old and wise Tom Blankenship, played by the wonderful Sam Shepard in one of his best roles in recent memory.
 
After discovering a book of black-and-white photos of people living and working on the Arkansas river,  Nichols says he realized that there was "a world in my backyard that I don’t know about." This idea sparked his vision of a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of Mississippi. "Little Rock is split in two by the river," he explains. "Whenever you drive over the bridge you see this little island in the middle of the river, and I always fantasized about playing out on that island." Nichols ruminated on the topic for a while, before deciding that the story was simply too good not to pursue. "When I said it out loud—a guy hanging out on an island in the middle of the river–it just felt like a good idea, like a big classic American movie idea." 
 
But not wanting to make a simple getaway film about a man on the run, Nichols thought about young boys finding Mud, and who those boys were. "A girl had broken up with me and I was feeling defeated and pained," he admits. "I started thinking, yeah, what if this kid’s going to get his heart broken and there’s this guy who always gets his heart broken, but for some reason always keeps coming back. All the sudden I had what ended up being the core of the story." And that core being love–first, unmerciful love. "A lot of the time we look down on that young love we had and think, oh wasn’t that cute or puppy love and all, but its kind of the fiercest love there is," he says. "You don’t have your hands up yet, which makes the fall so hard because you’re fully committed to it, you’re all in. And oh man, it hurts."
 
Having written the character of Mud for Matthew McConaughey without ever having met him, the challenge was finding the right actor for the role of Ellis. " I went in to meet him and he was just the physical manifestation of my character," says Nichols of Tye Sheridan, who, in his role, gives one of the most endearing and fearless performances of the year so far. "He looked like him, he sounded like him, he was from east Texas, he hunted and fished, did everything that I needed this kid to do." Sheridan had recently played the youngest son in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, which turned out to be just the proper training for the young actor, who Nichols found out about through Jessica Chastain and his producer Sarah Green. "He’d been through this amazing experience of being on a Malick film," says Nichols. He’d had the experience of working with celebrities and getting to understand the mechanism of filmmaking and cameras. "He had just gone through this amazing improvisational bootcamp and came to me fully formed as a talent," he adds. "All I had to do was give him the script and get out of the way."
 
There’s a particular moment in the film in which Sheridan explodes on Mud. He runs into the scene bursting with emotion and delivers an incredibly well-acted and authentic moment that hits you straight in the gut—which elicited an audible gasp from the audience at Sunday’s premiere at MoMA. Nichols recalls showing up that day on set and asking Sheridan if he needed to talk about the upcoming scene. Sheridan replied "Give me a few minutes," and sat on a log for two to three. Then: "Bam!" Nichols snaps his fingers in repetition."Two, three takes, just like that. I was like, holy crap. McConaughey and I just looked at each other and were like, we’re gonna make it." 
 
But what rings true with all the male characters in the film is inverting standard ideas of masculinity. Nichols takes the southern male mentality and exposes its "endearing" weakness. "I wanted to make a romantic film about the male point of view of love, and I don’t think that happens a lot," he says. He takes these hard men, whether it’s Mud, an outlaw, or Blankenship, a reclusive older man, and shows their vulnerability and their devotion to love. "They might be men who don’t feel comfortable sharing their feelings but they have all those thoughts, they have all those feelings, and we treat them like humans, like the real people that they are, and we don’t need to fit them into a stereotype of masculinity."
 
The dynamic between men and women in the film feels akin to that of the works of Shepard himself—an almost antiquated and structured view of how one should be, with the intellect and insight to understand the confounding nature of love’s instability. As a huge admirer of Shepard himself, Nichols admits, "there were definitely days on set where I was like, I’m not worthy of being here." He also recalled "the greatest day ever" when he was sitting on the beach and Shepard, who had the day off, came over "just wanted to hang out." The two sat together on the beach eating lunch, talking about music and films and books. "I was like, this is the coolest thing that I’ve ever done in my life."
 
With its release this weekend, Nichols is finally able to sit back and reflect on the film that’s been living inside him for years. "Now that I’ve made Mud, I feel like I’m ready to move on to a second chapter," says Nichols. For the 34-year-old director, it may be the beginning of a long and exciting career. "I’ve had Mud with me so long as an idea, it feels like it’s the end of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. I just feel it."

Matthew McConaughey Takes Center Stage in Jeff Nichols’s New Trailer for ‘Mud’

It took him almost an entire career of Wedding Planner(s) and Failure(s) to Launch, but Matthew McConaughey has finally found his place in cinema. The recent string of roles he has taken on make us wonder why he didn’t venture down this path in the first place? Perhaps it was an evovling sense of purpose as an actor or something that’s come with age, but in the last year he’s really seemed to hit his stride. With last year’s Killer Joe, The Paperboy, and even Magic Mike, McConaughey has come into his own—his own being a seedy, somewhat disturbed, southern (not so) gentleman on the fringe of the law. And with Jeff Nichols’s Mud, the follow-up to 2011’s paranoia-inducing Take Shelter, it appears McMonaughey is proving again that he’s not someone to take lightly. 

Mud tells the story of a two teenage boys who encounter a mysterious fugitive and form a pat to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trailer and to reunite him with his true love. Take Shelter was well-recieved by critics, garnering Nichols the attention he deserved from a film that was neither pure drama nor thriller, but a psychological study of a descent into madness that played on a mix of subtly and sheer power from its leading man, Michael Shannon—who also makes an appearance in Mud. In their Cannes review, The Film Stage claimed that Mud, "imperfect as it may be…marks a step forward for Nichols as a filmmaker capable of making big entertainment that retains some intelligence and a palpable message as well.” And if you aren’t sold already, Sam Shepard is also in the film and, let’s face it, that’s reason enough.

Check out the trailer below:

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October Movie Reviews: ‘The Ides of March,’ ‘Take Shelter,’ & ‘Martha Mary May Marlene’

The Ides of March If there’s one clear message in George Clooney’s The Ides of March, it’s this: You can lie, you can cheat, hell, you can be a terrible person—just don’t sleep with the intern. Adapted from Beau Willimon’s Broadway play Farragut North, the political thriller tells the story of Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the ambitious right-hand man of Governor Michael Morris (Clooney), as he tries to get Morris into the White House. Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an intern wise beyond her years, manages to be the hairline crack in the glass that eventually shatters, ruining Morris’ shot at victory.

It’s a tale of hubris set in a world where integrity and loyalty should be everything but mean nothing against the forces of money and power. Reminiscent of such ’70s thrillers as The Parallax View, the film paints a dark portrait of contemporary politics with help from its outstanding supporting cast, which includes Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Gamatti, and Marisa Tomei. Scene after scene, the revelations fall like so many punches to the gut. With a directorial resume that includes critical successes like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney might just have a career to fall back on in case the sexiest man alive thing doesn’t work out. —Hillary Weston

Martha Mary May Marlene Martha Marcy May Marlene will be remembered for its lead actor Elizabeth Olsen’s staggering breakout performance. As a refugee from a religious cult who tries to cleanse herself of the mental toxins injected by the group’s charismatic leader (a reliably unnerving John Hawkes), she doesn’t blanket the film, the way, say, Charlize Theron’s Oscar-winning turn in Monster did. Instead, we get quiet scenes that simmer with anticipation as an uneasy danger flickers just outside the frame. When tensions do flare, they erupt. The story cycles between Martha’s current life at her sister’s (Sarah Paulson) idyllic home in lakefront Connecticut, where she halfheartedly tries to readjust to normal society, and flashbacks to her time spent in the Manson-like cult, all the while instilling in the audience the unsettling sense that these worlds are about to violently collide. Whether or not they do is inconsequential to director Sean Durkin, who isn’t concerned with satisfying audience expectations—only upending them. —Ben Barna

Margin Call First off, it should be noted that viewers not currently in the employ of Goldman Sachs will understand neither the film’s titular trading term, nor the central tension in J.C. Chandor’s directorial debut to which it refers. It’s a testament to the stellar performances by the financial thriller’s male leads—Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Stanley Tucci, Zachary Quinto, and, surprisingly, Penn Badgley—that we’re, well, invested at all. The film takes place over the course of 24 disastrous hours at a prominent investment bank in ruin. Careers are alternately destroyed and born while the firm struggles to sell its shares to the highest bidder—and, later, any bidder. As a slighted business executive, Demi Moore reminds us why she once cornered the market on fear-inducing, ball-busting women on the verge. Whereas Ben Affleck’s The Company Men, an equally harrowing Credit Crunch drama, focused on the fallout of those who’d been laid off, this one takes an uncompromising look at the lengths we’re willing to go to stay out of the red. Business as usual, this is not. —Nick Haramis

Take Shelter The right cast makes all the difference in Jeff Nichols’ sophomore film, Take Shelter. The story follows Curtis LaForche (Oscar nominee Michael Shannon), a family man with a loving wife (Jessica Chastain) and child who starts experiencing a series of apocalyptic visions that plague his waking life. The film unfolds at a novel’s pace, slapping us to attention in the opening sequence before slowly building toward its inevitable climax. Neither pure drama nor thriller, Take Shelter is a psychological study of a man descending into madness, tormented by his own irrational fears. Through a mix of subtlety and sheer power, Shannon’s brilliant performance keeps audiences rapt with questions of what’s real, what’s fantasy, and what fear can do to the mind. —HW

Blackthorn In Blackthorn, Spanish screenwriter and director Mateo Gil takes us on the journey of an unlikely friendship in 1927 Bolivia. After being presumed dead by his pursuers back in 1908, Butch Cassidy (yes, that Butch Cassidy) adopts the alias of James Blackthorn (played by Sam Shepard). Weary of life on the run, he prepares to head back to the States to see his family after a near 30-year absence. An encounter with another criminal on the lam, Eduardo Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), a ruffian who has absconded with loot from a mine, leads him on one final adventure. All the best western tropes are here: horse chases, gunfights, buxom women, and men who smell of sweat and a saloon. The good guys are a little bit bad, the bad guys are a little bit good, and fate is in the hands of whoever’s quickest to draw. —Lorenna Gomez-Sanchez