Atlanta review: “Mud” (****½)

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Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland star in “Mud”

Filmmaker Jeff Nichols has made a name for himself crafting nuanced stories that capture the Southern experience in whatever form it may take. In 2011, Nichols and his stars, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, received a myriad of honors for “Take Shelter” (including the coveted #10 spot on my year-end list). His latest feature, “Mud,” debuted at Cannes to acclaim from critics and audiences alike– setting off on an impressive buzz ride leading up to its theatrical release next month.

“Mud” showcases the best of Nichols’ ability while feeling abundantly more fleshed-out than his previous work. While something has to be said of Nichols’ quiet consistency and refreshing originality in his storytelling, “Mud” does bring to mind certain masterworks of American cinema. Structurally similar and overflowing with character, the film would fit right in alongside the works of Elia Kazan from the 1950’s and 60’s. The visual elegance achieved through harnessing the sunkissed Americana is reminiscent of “The Tree of Life,” despite Malick’s broader scale and sprawling esotericism. Director of photography Adam Stone, having worked with Nichols on all previous films, gives us his best work yet– capturing the tree crowns, sand dunes and swift currents of the river with a colorful sophistication. The oxbows and islands of the Mighty Mississippi comprise as exotic a location as any American film could hope for, rivaling “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in visual novelty.

As much as it almost feels like the Mississippi River is the true star of the film, “Mud” splits the lead between Matthew McConaughey and young Tye Sheridan. McConaughey may stand alone on the poster, but Sheridan gives the veteran actor a run for his money with a lionhearted presence. Of the three sons in “The Tree of Life,” I fully expected Hunter McCracken to be the first to make waves post-Malick, but I am thrilled to see Sheridan add a second incredible film to his résumé. Sheridan’s pubescent surliness is compounded by his confused views of love and affection, abetted by a variety of murky relationships and mishaps playing out in front of him. McConaughey is as good as everyone says he is– hard at work blazing his path towards eminent Oscar recognition.

Matthew McConaughey plays “Mud”

Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are embedded deep in their roles– earning much more screen time than they get. McKinnon, in particular, gets a money scene or two. It’s nice to see Sam Shepard aging into these kinds of roles– perfectly tailored but showcasing a finespun range. Reese Witherspoon may be a stranger to supporting roles these days, but does fine as Mud’s lost love, Juniper. Although she is certainly capable of more use, it is nonetheless refreshing to see a Witherspoon performance independent of her trademark sass and empowerment. Her character’s vulnerability exists without a need to overcompensate; her performance not begging for more to do. Michael Shannon is never unwelcome company, but his role is simply comedic relief at its most superfluous.

“Mud” is the best opening night film that the Atlanta Film Festival has screened in the seven years I have been attending. Nichols continues to capture the ethos of the South with a remarkable precision all while getting the best out of his talented casts. You can expect “Mud” to stay on people’s lips throughout the year and into the next awards season.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

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