The Films of Jeff Nichols
Take Shelter (October 7/11)
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter details the turmoil that ensues after a normal family man (Michael Shannon's Curtis) begins experiencing nightmares (or visions) of an increasingly disturbing variety - with the frightening images prompting Curtis to build an impenetrable storm shelter behind his house. (Curtis' wife, Jessica Chastain's Samantha, makes a dogged attempt to stand by her man, but even she begins to question his state of mind.) Filmmaker Nichols' pervasively subdued approach ensures that Take Shelter, for the most part, boasts the feel of a low-key character study, with this vibe perpetuated by the slow-moving pace and general emphasis on the protagonist's day-to-day exploits. The periodic inclusion of ominous elements - eg Curtis' creepy nightmares - affords the movie a palpable undercurrent of mounting dread, though it's clear that Nichols is more concerned with exploring Curtis' mental state than with creating an atmosphere of terror. It's an unusual choice that succeeds primarily due to Shannon's absolutely riveting performance, with the actor's enthralling work sustaining the viewer's interest even through the movie's more overtly deliberate stretches. The needlessly overlong running time ultimately diminishes Take Shelter's overall impact, however, as it's clear that the film would've benefited from a few more passes through the editing bay (ie there's no reason for a film like this to run more than 90 minutes). That being said, Take Shelter does boast an admittedly engrossing final half hour that leaves one wishing the remainder of the proceedings had been as tight and entertaining - which effectively cements the movie's place as a consistently watchable yet pervasively uneven drama.
Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the superb Take Shelter, Mud follows a pair of young boys (Tye Sheridan's Ellis and Jacob Lofland's Neckbone) as they befriend the title character (Matthew McConaughey) and are subsequently drawn into his less-than-savory exploits. Writer/director Nichols has infused Mud with a slow-burn sort of feel that is, at the outset, not exactly engrossing, with the movie's arms-length atmosphere perpetuated by protagonists boasting difficult-to-decipher Southern accents. (This is, to be fair, a problem that goes away as the viewer is drawn into the film's rural world.) Mud improves steadily as it progresses, however, as Nichols does a superb job of fleshing out the story and characters - with, undoubtedly, the strength of the various performances playing an integral role in the film's impressive turnaround (ie the cast is, from top to bottom, pretty much flawless). It's ultimately the deliberate pacing that prevents Mud from becoming the stellar drama that Nichols has clearly intended, as the movie, saddled with a 130 minute running time, wears out its welcome to a progressively lamentable degree - with the incongruously action-packed finale ensuring that the film ends on as anticlimactic note as one could've envisioned. The end result is a seriously uneven little drama that could (and should) have been so much better, which is too bad, really, given its wealth of positive attributes (including yet another in an increasingly long line of stellar performances from McConaughey).
Midnight Special (March 31/16)
A typically idiosyncratic Jeff Nichols picture, Midnight Special follows a father (Michael Shannon's Roy) and son (Jaeden Lieberher's Alton) as they attempt to evade a series of authority figures interested in the latter's mysterious powers. It's a rather high-concept premise that's employed to pervasively low-key and subdued effect by Nichols, as the movie, which unfolds at as deliberate a pace as one could envision, possesses a decidedly oblique feel that requires a tremendous amount of patience from the viewer - with one essentially forced to piece the narrative together over the course of the film's (admittedly overlong) running time. The central mystery, and one's ongoing efforts to solve it, certainly plays a pivotal role in confirming Midnight Special's mild success, as writer/director Nichols doesn't even begin to offer up any definitive answers until well past the one-hour mark - which certainly, as a result, ensures that the movie possesses (or suffers from) an erratic, hit-and-miss midsection. And yet it's impossible to deny that the film is, on the whole, a tremendously effective piece of work, with the consistently watchable vibe perpetuated and heightened by Nichols' steady directorial hand and the efforts of an extremely capable roster of performers. (Shannon is expectedly fantastic here, of course, while folks like Adam Driver and Kirsten Dunst provide more-than-competent periphery support.) The undeniably oddball closing stretch, which makes sense, sort of, but leaves several questions unanswered, confirms Midnight Special's place as a thoroughly off-kilter endeavor that's unlikely to please the masses, although it's equally obvious that the potential of eventual cult status couldn't possibly be stronger.
Loving (November 4/16)
Based on true events and set in the 1950s, Loving follows interracial couple Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga) Loving as they undergo a series of trials after their marriage is declared unlawful by the state of Virginia. It's a familiar storyline that's employed to engaging and impressively non-traditional effect by writer/director Jeff Nichols, as the filmmaker does a superb job of establishing the time and place in which the story transpires and elicits uniformly superb work from his various actors - with both Negga and Edgerton inhabiting their respective characters to a degree that's often mesmerizing. (Edgerton, especially, delivers a performance that ranks among his best and most captivating.) And while Nichols' reluctance to emphasize conventional elements is laudable - eg the movie is impressively lacking in hackneyed instances of bigoted side characters berating the protagonists - Loving's unapologetically meandering atmosphere, which generally highlights Richard and Mildred's day-to-day exploits, ensures that a handful of lulls do emerge over the course of the film's 123 minute running time. It's nevertheless difficult to deny the impact of the movie as a whole, with the narrative slowly-but-surely building towards a finale that packs a palpable emotional punch - which, when coupled with a pervasively convincing and seemingly authentic vibe, confirms Loving's place as another solid effort in Nichols' top-notch body of work.