[snippet slug=”director-spotlight” /]
In the past 15 years, independent film has become enamored with exploring the personalities and culture of rural America. From David Gordon Green’s poetic, violent meditations such as George Washington and Undertow-to-Debra Granik and her unflinching portrait of addiction Down to the Bone and adaption of Daniel Woodrell’s Winter’s Bone, indie filmmakers have been exploring the rich canvas of the American South and turning its slowly disappearing culture into some of the most engaging and innovative filmmaking currently being produced. And Jeff Nichols is perhaps one of the most aesthetically accomplished filmmakers to emerge from this gritty territory.
In just three films—Shotgun Stories (2007), Take Shelter (2011), and Mud (2012)—Nichols has established himself as one of the most unique voices working in film today.
Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas and educated at the University of North Carolina School of Arts, (Along with director and sometimes production partner, David Gordon Green) Nichols version of the south is violent, deeply meditative, and rooted in the bonds of family. His films are often compared to legendary filmmaker Terrence Mallick, (Badlands, A Thin Red Line, Tree of Life)a comparison he often feels wholly comfortable with, but yet seems just as ready to distance himself from.
said Nichols to the Guardian in a 2013 interview.
Look, I’ll be honest: Badlands changed my life, it really did rewire my brain as to how film can operate, but Malick is a wholly unique film-maker. There is no one like him. He’s like an impressionist painter; he’s trying to capture memory, or dreams, or thoughts. That’s a very special thing to be doing; all I’m doing is just trying to capably tell a story. I don’t want to be Malick, I want to be me.
Without question Nichols first feature film, Shotgun Stories, was inspired by Mallick. Made on a threadbare budget of $50,000, Shotgun Stories focuses on a feud that erupts between two sets of half-brothers at the funeral of their father. Michael Shannon is at his brooding best as Son Hayes, a degenerate poker player and defacto patriarch to his brothers Boy and Kid. After Son speaks his mind at his father’s—a man who was a self-absorbed drunk who abandoned his first set of sons to be raised solely by a hateful, revenge minded mother, and who later found God and stuck around to raise his next set of boys—funeral, animosity slowly builds between the two factions until it explodes in violence and murder.
The meditative pacing, use of natural lighting, long steady cam shots, and off screen violence only adds to the overwhelming feeling of dread as the film builds towards its final confrontation between the two sets of brothers. (By the way, none of these elements were happy accidents, but the result of Nichols obscenely low budget.)
Nichols second film, Take Shelter, is often described as being “apocalyptic” and with good reason. Nichols once again re-teamed with Michael Shannon for Take Shelter, and the film is perhaps one of the most realistic portrayals of schizophrenia since William Friedkin’s perennial shocker, Bug. (Which also happened to star Michael Shannon) Take Shelter is the story of a young husband and father named Curtis. Curtis is absorbed by visions of an oncoming catastrophe and becomes obsessed with protecting his wife and young daughter by constructing a fall out shelter in his backyard.
In possession of a much larger budget than Shotgun Stories, Nichols utilized CGI to illustrate Curtis’ out of control visions. But yet despite the increased budget and startling effects, Nichols kept the story very intimate and personal as the audience slowly watches Curtis unravel as his wife Samantha—played by the stellar Jessica Chastain—tries to desperately ground him.
Nichols best known film is his third feature, Mud. Essentially, Mud is a modern day retelling of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
“I first read Tom Sawyer when I was in 8th grade, 13 years old,” said Nichols to the Guardian. “I realized since that Mark Twain just bottled what it felt like to be a child. I wanted to check back in with that and see what a modern-day boy on the river is like.”
Despite amazing performances from both Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, the true breakout performances of the film come from Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, playing adolescent friends Ellis and Neckbone. The two young actors impart both a sense of childhood wonder along with a pre-natural world wariness as they attempt to reunited Mud (McConaughey) with his beloved, but incredibly flawed, Juniper (Witherspoon), as they try to outrun Juniper’s gangster father-in-law.
As with most indie directors, Nichols has recently started work on his first studio released film for Warner Brothers, Midnight Special. The film is being billed as a Sci-Fi chase film inspired by the movies of John Carpenter. And, yes, Michael Shannon once again re-teams with Nichols as the lead, along with Joel Edgerton, Adam Driver, and Kristen Dunst. And while I’m very interested to see Nichols explore other genres. But as a fan, I can only hope that he’ll once again return to his southern roots.
One last thing before I wrap up today, for those of you who’ve never seen Shotgun Stories, the entire film is available via YouTube 100% free of charge, so please feel free to watch and share your thoughts about the film.