“Mud,” the third feature to date from “Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols, has been on my mind a fair bit recently — more than I’d customarily expect for a film I only kinda-sorta liked when I saw it two months ago. But I’m wearing my pundit’s hat rather than my critic’s one as I write this, and as the first rumblings of the fall festival season are heard in the near distance, one question about the film seems rather pertinent: put plainly, where the hell is it?
Of the 22 films that unspooled in Competition at Cannes back in May, 16 have already secured US distribution. The exceptions are, by and large, understandable ones: Carlos Reygadas’s “Post Tenebras Lux” is proudly impenetrable esoterica, with or without a Best Director award, “After the Battle” is politically remote and critically drubbed, while “Paradise: Love” is an explicit arthouse provocation that broaches touchy themes of race and female sexuality. Alain Resnais’s “You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet” may have more name appeal than any of these, but its concentric theatricality makes it a mighty hard sell to non-French audiences.
Why “Mud” is in the company of these films, however, is more of a mystery. It’s American, for starters, and boasts major marquee names in Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon. It has a hot director in Nichols: “Take Shelter” may not have lit up the box office last year, but it was a significant critical story that portended a larger breakthrough. More to the point: it’s his most mainstream and broadly accessible film to date, a blend of Southern-fried nostalgia and genre adventure that expressly calls “Stand By Me” to mind, alongside the literary spirit of Mark Twain.
As if all this doesn’t make it sufficiently sellable to high-end indie distributors, the film was a sizable hit at Cannes. It was always going to be too commercial (ironically enough) to impress Nanni Moretti’s jury, but I can testify that its press screening was one of the most enthusiastically received of the entire festival: applause over the end credits was long and loud, with several whoops thrown into the mix, while afterwards, a range of reputable colleagues, American and otherwise, declared themselves thoroughly charmed. (Pete Hammond, as reliable a barometer of popular appeal as any, told me it was his favorite film in Competition.)
“Mud” surely benefited from being the last film screened in the lineup: after 10 days of heavy-duty art cinema, even the most studious critic will be more receptive to a film that, if not quite lightweight, certainly plays a little more to the gallery. And several critics shared my reservations about it, particularly with regard to its tone-deaf, feel-good third act, which turns a delicate David Gordon Green-esque mood piece into something a shade closer to “Old Dogs.” As sometimes happens with festival films, the agnostics may grow in number as it travels further, but it’s always going to be well-liked.
No surprise, then, that the O-word was bandied about considerably in the immediate wake of “Mud”‘s premiere — with its blend of star power, auteur cred and timeless coming-of-age storytelling (it’s not a period piece, but it may as well be), it’s the most outwardly Academy-friendly title that screened on the Croisette this year. At the very least, a Best Actor push for Matthew McConaughey — currently having the best year of his career, and likely to be the focus of a twin supporting campaign for “Magic Mike” — seemed plausible, even if he’s slightly subordinate to the film’s teenage lead, Tye Sheridan. A Best Original Screenplay nod for Nichols looked an even easier get, particularly considering the category’s extreme sparseness this year. (More on that tomorrow.)
Why, then, has there been no noise from US distributors? It’s the kind of film that Fox Searchlight could well polish into a word-of-mouth sleeper and awards player — but they may have their hands full with other contenders. Sony Pictures Classics handled “Take Shelter” last year, and the director’s follow-up would fit neatly in their wheelhouse. They currently lack a Best Picture pony beyond “Amour” — which, Palme d’Or prestige notwithstanding, is a dark horse for any number of obvious reasons. What about “Mud” has prevented them from stepping in?
As Kris and Anne mentioned in last week’s Oscar Talk podcast, “Mud” is one of the titles that will be looking to get a second wind at the Telluride and/or Toronto festivals, where prospective buyers can have another look and reassess how it might fit into their slate. First, however, it has to show up in those festivals — and while there are further additions to be made to the Toronto lineup, “Mud” wasn’t in the first wave of selections announced yesterday. (Meanwhile, the news just landed that “Mud” has been selected as the opening film of the Deauville Festival of American Film next month.)
Of course, it could all fall into place before the festival season. “Mud” is hardly the first major Cannes title to be left in limbo through the summer: two years ago, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s “Biutiful,” which met with split reviews but shared the Best Actor gong for Javier Bardem, had to wait all the way until late August before finally finding a home with Roadside Attractions. Roadside probably wasn’t the outfit “Biutiful” entered Cannes aiming for, but they did well by the film, steering it through the festivals and ultimately landing it two top Oscar nominations. A similar outcome, with a similar company, might await “Mud,” but it shouldn’t be taking people this long to bite.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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