I watched my second Jeff Nichols movie tonight, a film called “Mud,” a coming of age story set in rural Arkansas. I can’t say it was better than “Take Shelter,” but it was as good. In addition to finding “Take Shelter” one of the best movies I’ve seen, I decided to watch “Mud” for another reason. It is one that Nichols holds with some trepidation.
Jeff Nichols is now being compared to what he calls “the M word.” The M stands for Malick. Though they choose radically different storylines, Nichols and Malick are quite similar thematically dealing with the internal workings of average people at the mercy of their psychologies and what they do not fully comprehend. I’ve written of Malick often enough, so tonight I turn my attention to what I’ve observed in both “Mud” and “Take Shelter.”
Not to totally leave Malick, I will say that Nichols has not settled into a formula such as Malick’s searching for God on the prairie, though after his first three films one could argue Malick had not found the formula yet either. “Take Shelter” and “Mud” differ greatly in their genre, geography and point of view. “Take Shelter” is an apocalyptic thriller set in northeast Ohio and told from the perspective of an adult male. “Mud” is a mixture of crime drama and romance set in the river country of Arkansas and told from the perspective of youth.
Thematically both of these Nichol’s movies say something of romantic and familial relationships, though each presents a very different milieu. “Take Shelter” is about what happens when a mature and loving relationship set in the stability of a nuclear family is tested by what is either madness or a vision. “Mud” has at its core a loving but immature relationship and the movie is littered with failed marriages and relational dysfunction.
The nature of conflict is also different in each of these movies. “Mud” gives us bad decision making done from one’s free will and “Take Shelter,” a conflict that comes from that which is beyond one’s control, whether it be schizophrenia or the voice of God. The morality of each is different, though both say a lot about trust in situations where trust is difficult. Both also take pointed jabs at the human relation to creation, one dealing with the hydraulic fracturing common in northern Ohio and the other with the displacement of a community that has come to rely on the bounty of the river. (Ironically “Take Shelter” says something about failure to regulate and “Mud” takes on overregulation.)
Far the biggest difference in these two Nichols movie is one Nichols has pointed to himself. In an interview by Jack Girou, Nichols points out that “Take Shelter” is much darker and less adventurous than “Mud.” This really gets back to the point of view taken by each film. “Take Shelter” is written from the perspective of a father who has to safeguard his wife and child even when he is not able to do it for himself, whereas “Mud” is a Mark Twain like adventure story of youth. A boy on the verge of manhood never has the challenges of a family man with a household.
There is one great similarity between the two movies and it trumps these differences. Both are ultimately about love, whether it is love’s reality or the hope for what is most real about love. In the foreboding realm of “Take Shelter” is the incredible light of being there for one another. Here there is the presence of one who is both helper and mate, the true definition of a wife and marriage is never really imperiled.
The adult world of “Mud” has given up this vision of love and family, but it is still there for the young.
Mud in talking about Tom (Mud’s adoptive father of sorts) who is among the most bitter and stoic of men mentions Tom once loved a woman with the force of two men. We don’t why Tom lost her, but he wants Mud to have nothing to do with a woman who loves him, but with her lack of maturity can only string him along. Mud eventually realizes Tom is right and gives up on his love, but not on love itself telling Ellis, the movie’s young protagonist, if he one day meets a woman half as good as he is, he will find love and the world will be alright.
In both “Take Shelter” and “Mud” we have brilliant pictures and in Jeff Nichols, who defers to Malick and imagines he can never equal his greatness, though we get the feeling we may have a man well on his way to doing so. Even if he does not, we have two stories already that carry the force of two lifetimes and we can only hope the canon of Jeff Nichols continues to grow.
Image: from Wikipedia and under copyright, this image is low resolution believed to be of fair use