Jeff Nichols’s work is imbued with personality, has an identifiable tone. Its indie cred is inescapable for this reason alone. A blockbuster operates within a generic mold that the largest number can relate to, that sidelines the least – a tree without branches. Mud, with all the parts necessary to create a living thing, is a fully featured organism. It doesn’t rely on the appeal of the masses, or the love from a specific genre (indie), instead focusing on the story, the world of the characters. The setting of Mud is similar in prominence to those of Faulkner’s short works, the wilderness of “The Bear,” for instance. It serves to define the characters, to give them depth and a specific wisdom. As a man of the southern wilderness, I find the authority Mr. Nichols displays keen enough. It has the maturity of years, enough to become digested, transformed into wisdom. Details resonate perfectly, like the moccasin: hated, feared, a powerful snake that dominates the tepid pools of the South – deadly, poisonous, muscular, deceptively fast, few encounters with them don’t end in a deadly fight out, or a scramble to safety (I’ve done both). These devils of the subtropics are planted deep into the subconscious of everyone raised in a southern wilderness; their inclusion here brings a wonderful relevance.
Like Faulkner, Nichols’s people, their psychology, are the central interest. The whole of the staging is to draw them as they would be, and siphon them off into derivatives, that we may absorb their essence, live their lives. Mr. Nichols, through the boys on the river, has hooked into the southern myth, neatly adapted to the modern framework of houseboat, salvage yard, gas engine flat, appropriately distressed motorcycle. The boys move fluently with the machines of today, a new interpretation that shows the relevance of the old, that it remains largely unchanged.
One striking aspect of “Shotgun Stories,” his previous work, that proves this point, is that, though the actors are amateurs, the archetypes they portray incorporate this insecurity into their depictions, adding a human feel to a human role. Does it reveal something about me, that I know these men: the basketball coach living in a van, the fish-monger in a tent? These are portraits, more than mere roles, deep studies of complex characters that aren’t particularly beautiful or cool. Nichols shows the same interest in the subject that the great painters held, not a physical idea (read stylize) but something real, a personality that conveys more than a calculated beauty, nature captured in its own abandon. As a writer and filmmaker, an ardent fan of the existentialists, I doubly appreciate this feat. A novel is impossible to write, a movie of depth? A novel requires an economy of language, that the prose flows smoothly – a movie even less, a mere skeleton. That anyone can work with these limitations, create something of great depth – as it can only be implied – is astounding. That this artist is producing this type of content now, in today’s corporate climate, where everything at the AMC is a calculated risk, is a soothing balm for every individual struggling for relevance.