Famed playwright Sam Shepard once had the following to say about the American Dream: “I don’t know what the American Dream is. I do know it doesn’t work. Not only doesn’t it work, the myth of the American Dream has created extraordinary havoc, and it’s going to be our demise.” Shepard used this theme, and others like it, when creating such works as True West and Buried Child, a play for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Ironically, Shepard stars in Mud, the new film from director Jeff Nichols that addresses the principles of the American Dream head on.
The film is a nice mix of western thrillers like No Country for Old Men and painfully honest dramas like Frozen River. It tells the story of two boys (played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) that come into contact with a man who calls himself Mud, and who just happens to be a fugitive on the run from the law (Matthew McConaughey). The boys, whose lives seems at moments as fragmented and disoriented as Mud's, agree to help Mud escape the bounty hunters on his trail and also promise to reunite him with a girl from his past (Reese Witherspoon).
Mud is the third feature film from writer/director Jeff Nichols and it is a film that requires a viewing by anybody who attempts to seek out the best in film. It is a film about ideals and morals that doesn't restrict itself to a given period of time. It could just as easily represent the past as it could the present. The parallel structure of the plot allows the audience to be drawn into rich discussions about love, trust, innocence, and, yes, the American Dream. That is perhaps the most striking thing about Mud; it somehow manages to comment on universal themes that span generations both past and present. Just as Ellis, one of the boys, is attempting to figure out the concept of first love, Mud is forced to re-examine his love for a woman that he has always thought to be his one true loves. Both Ellis and Mud seem to arrive at the same results, despite their deeply varied backgrounds and social history. A number of the results may not be what we expected, and certainly not what we would hope for, but that is the beauty of the American Dream. Not everything within that dream is attainable but it is an earnest pursuit of the best aspects of that dream that ultimately come to define our lives. I find that Mud is actually a film that reinforces our belief in the American Dream. It may be an American Dream that has shifted and changed with the increasingly confusing times in which we live, but there is no doubt that the Dream is alive and well.
To convey this message, Mud is filled with a number of great elements. The first of these elements is the cast. Each of the performances within the ensemble works perfectly. Tye Sheridan gives arguably the best child performance within the last 25 years. It is actually insulting to call the performance a child performance, as if the very phrase implies something less than great acting. Sheridan gives Ellis great emotional range and allows him to grow throughout the entire film. The relatability that results from this is what allows the audience to become truly invested in the story. It is a hard task for any actor to accomplish, but Sheridan does a great job with it. His performance in Mud marks the arrival of what I can only hope will be a great career.
While Mud seems to largely be stolen by newcomers like Sheridan and Jacob Lofland and wonderful character actors like Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, the big names are equally great. Matthew McConaughey gives the best performance of his career, while Reese Witherspoon shows us why she deserved that Oscar she won in 2005 for Walk the Line. What is true of both McConaughey and Witherspoon is that both have often relied on their looks and name recognition to draw people to their films. It doesn't matter that the projects might have been films like Ghosts of Girlfriends Past or This Means War; their name sells films. Luckily, each decides to immerse themselves in a more independent film. By doing so, they are allowed to truly act. With great writing and direction, both McConaughey and Witherspoon are allowed to amaze us all over again as if they were fresh to the screen.
This can perhaps be attributed to the wonderful script and direction of Jeff Nichols. As a writer/director, Nichols appears to be one of the more unique voices in film from the last decade. It's ultimately his ability to execute his vision with such clarity that allows everything within the film to work. It's a project that will stand the test of time and will come to define what is truly great about the art of making movies. Of great significance is the fact that Nichols creates a number of great characters, none of which seem to be black and white. At any given point within the film, we can find ourselves rooting for or against the characters on screen. Each is flawed, but that is what makes each one so great. We see this perhaps most strikingly in Ellis's parents. Ellis comes from a fragmented home, but we come to view that not as the fault of any single parent but simply as the result of a love that seems to have fizzled out. With Ellis on the receiving end of this, we come to sympathize with Ellis but we never come to vilify the parents.
Truth be told, Mud leaves little to no room to critique it for its shortcomings, mainly because there are none. I can honestly say that the film is the first perfect film of 2013, with a host of great performances and a script that call to mind what makes any movie great in its own right. It is a film that is meant to entertain, and it does. Perhaps more important, though, is the fact that the film is about something very real. It is about the connections that we find with those around us; connections which expose us to new experiences and to a new way of thinking. Stated in the simplest of terms, Mud renews my faith in movies as a high art form and reminds me of all that is possible through film.