Earlier this month, my wife and I got the chance to see Mud, a film by one of my favorite directors, Jeff Nichols. Mud is a Huckleberry Finn-like narrative set on the banks of the Mississippi in small town Arkansas. Told through the lens of fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who, along with his buddy ‘Neckbone’, finds a boat in a tree on an island in the middle of the Mississippi. Living in that boat is a man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) with crosses in his boots to ward off evil spirits and a bounty on his head. Through an unlikely friendship/pact formed between Ellis, Neckbone, and Mud, director Joe Nichols takes the audience deep into small town Arkansas. The extraordinary circumstances keep the pace of Mud quick and the viewing experience pleasant, but what lingered in my mind long after the story were the people and the setting.
Three movies into what I hope will be a long career, Nichols has already proven himself to be a master storyteller. His films create a small town aesthetic that is realistic, ugly, and absolutely beautiful. Nichols’ first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter have already proven than he has a firm grasp on his favorite subject matter: people. Everything that happens in a Jeff Nichols film, surreal or hyperrealist, is used to propel us into the complex depths of the human heart. In Mud, the issue on the block is love. “Do you love her?” is the question that haunts Ellis as he helps his new friend Mud, watches his parents’ marriage disintegrate, and navigates the minefield of dating.
To create this aesthetic, Jeff Nichols turns to his musically inclined brother, Ben. Ben Nichols happens to be the lead singer of the alt-country outfit, Lucero. The music brings the setting alive.
The Lucero/Ben Nichols solo tracks used in the film perfectly complement the story. Perfect accent pieces to a film that relies on extraordinary circumstances to tell stories of unfortunately ordinary hurt. While generally lyric-less contribution, Ben Nichols’ instrumentation adds another layer of grittiness to his brother’s film. The music gives Mud (and the other two Nichols’ films) a working-class sensibility and a Neo-Southern gothic charm. Like an extra cultural artifact, Lucero communicates the dustiness of river living and adds an emotional weight that music is so strangely capable of.
Jeff Nichols uses his big brother’s music to create a literary landscape. In a Washington City Paper interview, Jeff Nichols described what Ben Nichols’ sound brings to his films,
“What’s funny about using his music all the time is that I’m just a huge fan of it. I listen to his music when I write, it’s on all my playlists. So I often write scenes with certain songs of his in mind. What I really love about his songs is that there’s specific sound to his music that just feels like the South. And it’s not traditional, which is what I love. But it feels like high school to me, it feels like a contemporary literary sound to me. Like contemporary fiction, Larry Brown or something. The sound of his guitars is so unique. He’s not playing any corny banjo or harmonica, it just sounds like our version of the South.”
The track Davy Brown, off of Ben Nichols’ solo album based on Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” is used as Ellis and his dad drive through their town selling fish. Ellis accompanies his dad as he makes his livelihood, with the work serving as a sort of bonding time. The chorus sums up the heart of the film— perfectly illustrating the impending collapse of his family and life on the river even as he clings onto hope that it all can be salvaged.
Where you gonna be when the hammer comes down?
can you outshoot the devil?
Outrun his hounds?
Well there aint nothin’ to it but to stay above ground
Not to mention the quandary of Mud as he tries with a supernatural optimism to get a flooded, motor-less boat off an island and escape his pursuers. It seems like foolish optimism amidst impending collapse. But with love as motivation, hope moves the characters through despite the flames of hell at their heels.
But Mud ends with hope. Broken and bruised, but hope nonetheless. As I left the theatre, I was struck by an optimism mixed with a mystical awe of the relationships and the world of Mud. Unlike Nichols’ two earlier films, in Mud, goodness wins but the fight is just as ugly and “happily ever after” is accompanied by some ugly scars (and snakebites). And through the gritty sound of Lucero and Ben Nichols, the ugly goodness of Mud‘s South is perfectly accompanied.