Over the weekend, I went to the theater to see Mud. Normally, I would’ve been perfectly content to wait for DVD. But I found out that it had been directed by Jeff Nichols, the same director who had made 2011’s Take Shelter. Purely on that basis alone, I wanted to see Mud. Afterwards, I was so impressed with it and with Take Shelter that I knew I had to make it a point to track down his other film- Shotgun Stories (2007). And in less than 24 hours, I had become a huge Jeff Nichols fan. The feeling is reminiscent of, say, the first time you see Hard Eight or Boogie Nights; Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums; or Shaun of the Dead and Spaced. This is a young director who is going places, and his work makes audiences stand up and take notice. But who is he and what is he all about?
Some basic Googling shows that Nichols is 34 years old. He grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas and he studied film at the University of North Carolina. Those ties to the south are significant, and I’ll touch on it momentarily. He has made three films- Shotgun Stories (2007); Take Shelter (2011); and Mud (2013). After Shotgun Stories, he wrote and sold a TV pilot to HBO, although it never got off the ground. Now let’s get to the meaty stuff. What are Nichols’ films all about?
For at least fifty years, the south has been seen in cinema one of two ways. In many cases, it’s presented as a cinematic extension of the southern gothic literary tradition. This means decaying environments, immoral behavior, racism, poverty, and violence. It’s usually punctuated by grotesque characters. And for most of these fifty years, it’s been a vehicle for southerners to do some introspective reflection. The other primary mode in which we’ve seen the South on film in the last fifty years has been in historical drama, fixating on the civil rights struggle and the abominable acts of racist citizens and politicians. In short, the last fifty years have not been kind to the South in cinema.
Nichols scraps all of that. He is impressively true to the South in his films. He’s interested in the new South. There are no cartoonish grotesques, and racism- at least to date- has not been a topic of discussion in his films. Instead, what he has captured is simple and pure- an honest, experienced voice of the way people live in the South. Or at least, an honest view of the way they live in Arkansas, which has been the location for two of his films. One of the first things that screenwriters learn is to write what you know, and Nichols has done that brilliantly. An important facet here is that none of his actors employ ham-fisted southern accents. They come off as genuine characters. The net result is a raw humanity to his characters and the environment they inhabit, and it adds so much to the audience’s buy-in. And in fairness to Nichols, his one film outside of the south- Take Shelter, which takes place in Ohio- possesses that same power of raw humanity.
Fun With Names
I’d love to ask Nichols if his characters’ colorful names are, in fact, used as a device to tell the audience something about his characters. It certainly seems to be the case. “Mud” is permanently stuck in the proverbial mud, trapped in love with a woman who has never really reciprocated, and dirty for it. “Neck” is a doubtful young man, and whose leap of faith to help Mud represents the act of sticking out his neck. There’s probably a code with the name “Juniper” but I don’t know enough about trees (or juniper bugs) to crack the code. In Shotgun Stories, the three brothers are named Son, Boy, and Kid. Even the Netflix description knows enough to point out that the names embody their father’s massive indifference to them, a fact that drives the entire story.
IMDb lists only one influence- Mark Twain. There’s no doubt that Twain’s influence appears in the realistic, free and easy way that Nichols’ characters interact with one another. Just like in Twain’s work, bodies of water have played roles in both of Nichols’ Arkansas films, with each of the primary families earning their living through fishing. Beyond Twain, Nichols recently admitted that Steven Spielberg’s earlier work has had an influence on his own, if only indirectly. In a Vanity Fair interview around the release of Take Shelter, Nichols cited Terrence Malick as an influence:
“That guy has invented a new language of film. To compare myself to him is an inappropriate thing. The fact that I and Dave Green—we both kind of make meditative films; maybe that’s part of it. We like landscape and how environment influences character. I shoot puzzle pieces and then I go put them together. That being said, the stuff that always impresses me about Malick is natural light. Just shooting in natural light. We didn’t do enough of it in this film. And I want to do more.”
This is absolutely a place where Nichols’ Malick influence shows up. If you’ve ever been to any of the places his films take place, then you realize just how well he’s captured the environment. The cinematography chews up the beauty of the Ozarks, of Mud’s island, of the hills and fields of Take Shelter‘s Ohio. Beyond that, we’ve already touched on fish and fishing playing a major role in his films. Additionally, snakes have played major roles in both Shotgun Stories and Mud.
The one Nichols collaborator that everyone will recognize is the budding star Michael Shannon. Nichols famously saw a clip of Shannon well before either’s career took off, and claimed that he wanted Shannon in every single film he ever makes. So far, he’s been true to his word. Shotgun Stories was even written with Shannon in mind. It’s been a fruitful collaboration and we would all benefit if it continued, even if it may be unlikely with Shannon’s career taking off the way it is right now.
Both his brother, Ben, and composer David Wingo have worked with Nichols on his last two films. His brother’s band, Lucero, provides blues and soul while Wingo adds an ambient score. The combination is very effective. It’s worth noting that Ben Nichols and Lucero also provided music for Shotgun Stories.
Last but not least, I’d be remiss as a graphic designer if I didn’t mention that the title sequence of all three of his films have featured some form of Helvetica, reversed in white on black backgrounds. I can verify that fact for both Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories. I am, however, going off of memory for Mud, but I’m almost positive it was the same. It’s not quite Wes Anderson and Futura, Bergman and Peignot, or Woody Allen and Windsor EF Elongated, but three-for-three is a heck of a start towards establishing a recurring motif.
As you can see, I think quite highly of Nichols’ first three films. He is absolutely on my radar as a young director whose work I’ll follow. What will be really interesting in future years is to see if his style continues to follow its early path.