Cannes 2012: Jeff Nichols cleans up with 'Mud'
CANNES, France -- Looking a little like a kid caught swiping some candy, Jeff Nichols said what everyone in the room was thinking -- there is a lot of Mark Twain in his new movie "Mud."
"If you're going to steal, steal from someone who's really good," he told reporters with an affable shrug after his film premiered to extremely enthusiastic applause Saturday morning at the Cannes Film Festival.
At 33 and with just two features under his belt, Nichols came to Cannes as the youngest and least experienced of the North American directors, an estimable group that includes Wes Anderson, Lee Daniels and David Cronenberg. But he emerged with perhaps the best-received film of them all with "Mud," a coming-of-age drama graced occasionally by thriller touches.
An homage to "The Goonies" and "Stand By Me" as much as to "Huckleberry Finn," "Mud" is perhaps the most accessible and unabashedly crowd-pleasing movie to play among the roughly dozen English-language films here. It is also more of a feel-good tale than Nichols had been known for with his previous work, which includes the moody man-unhinged piece "Take Shelter" from 2011.
"I never considered a bleaker ending for this movie," he said at the press conference. "I had enough of those."
While "Mud" follows a criss-crossing pattern of relationships, its main focus is 14-year-old Ellis (previously unknown Southern teen Tye Sheridan) and his sidekick Neck (ditto, played by Jacob Lofland), and what happens when the Arkansans escape to an island downriver from Ellis' houseboat home only to find an enigmatic vagabond named Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Which means that, like a certain iconic American novel, we're watching two young boys in rural America taking to the river and coming upon a mysterious stranger.
Unlike the escaped slave of Twain's Jim, Mud, it turns out, is on the run because he committed a crime to win the heart of longtime romantic interest Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, somber and un-Reese-like), a woman who has never fully returned his devotion.
Nichols is also concerned with depicting the South authentically, which is why he said he wanted to cast boys who knew how to pilot boats and ride dirt bikes -- not to "fly in actors from Los Angeles and say, 'Here's your boating lesson today.' "
The filmmaker grew emotional as he spoke of his decision to write a movie set in rural parts of his native Arkansas, as well as of the larger notion of imagining the South as a kind of mythic idea. "These places and people have such a particular accent and culture," he said, "and they're quickly getting homogenized. I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won't be there forever."
In an interview with 24 Frames earlier in the week, Nichols said he believed this desire dovetailed with what audiences wanted to watch. "I think more than anything we just want to see something different," he said of his film, which does not yet have U.S. distribution. "And a lot of people haven't seen the world presented in 'Mud.' " In this regard, Nichols' movie is like the 2010 indie favorite "Winter's Bone," which is set in an obscure part of the rural Midwest, though isn't nearly as downbeat.
The Texas-born McConaughey, who said he liked the Southern elements because it felt like a homecoming, also responded to the script's romantic themes. "I had a wonderful time getting back in those clouds, going back to the first time you're in love," he told reporters. "It's roofless ... there's nothing reasonable about it, and thank God."
One reporter at the press conference called the actor "a revelation," and it's getting harder to disagree. McConaughey impresses as the man who must play both the movie's enigmatic outlaw and emotional spine, and also is continuing a streak that saw him star in a second Cannes film (Daniel's "The Paperboy") in addition to well-received turns recently in "The Lincoln Lawyer" and "Bernie."
But Nichols may emerge as the true star of the movie, and, in some ways, even one of the breakouts of the festival. A niche Sundance-y director just a year ago, the young filmmaker has begun to take his place on a global stage.
Distributors interviewed earlier in the week who'd seen "Mud" at private screenings expressed concerns about the movie's length (130 minutes) and pacing. But when all is said and done, it's hard to imagine that being a huge impediment to Nichols' career, or to the audience's enjoyment of the film.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Tye Sheridan, left, Matthew McConaughey and Jacob Lofland in "Mud." Credit: FilmNation