The director: Jeff Nichols (American, 33 years old)
The talent: Matthew McConaughey’s career rehabilitation continues apace: not long after popping up in Venice with “Killer Joe,” he’s hitting the Croisette in two Competition films. Unlike “The Paperboy,” “Mud” (in which he plays the title role) is a lead showcase for him, though he’s by no means the only star involved. Reese Witherspoon, another name you wouldn’t immediately associate with Cannes, is also on board, hopefully triggering her own reversal of fortune.
Also present: Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson (who recently hit peak form in “Martha Marcy May Marlene”) and Michael Shannon, who, of course, excelled in both the director’s previous features, “Take Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories.” Taking a prominent role, too, is teenaged actor Tye Sheridan, who featured as one of the young brothers in last year’s Palme d’Or winner, “The Tree of Life.”
As on his previous films, Nichols wrote the original screenplay. Cinematographer Adam Stone, who shot both “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter” (and previously worked on second unit for David Gordon Green), returns, as does “Take Shelter” composer David Wingo. Wingo, incidentally, is another former David Gordon Green collaborator, as is production designer Richard A. Wright: with Green himself having departed to grubbier multiplex waters, it seems Nichols is keen to fill his shoes. New to Nichols’ team is editor Julie Monroe, a recent favorite of Oliver Stone.
The pitch: The youngest director in this year’s Competition lineup, Nichols broke through last year with his teasing, genre-infused sophomore feature “Take Shelter.” His follow-up, however, sounds closer to the straightforward Americana of his debut, “Shotgun Stories” — and after the Ohio-set “Shelter,” returns the director to his native Southern States. The synopsis also suggests something warmer and more honey-dipped than his previous work. It stars McConaughey as a scuzzy fugitive from the law who is sheltered by two 14 year-old boys who eventually abet his escape from their Mississippi island, and his reunion with his girlfriend (Witherspoon). “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is cited as a reference; film-wise, the logline calls both “Stand By Me” and Clint Eastwood’s underrated “A Perfect World” to mind, though it should be stressed that Nichols’ film is not a period piece.
The pedigree: Nichols is one of six directors who has never been in Competition before, and he’s certainly the greenest of the lot — but that’s not to say he has no Cannes record. “Take Shelter” was one of the non-Competition sensations of last year’s festival, winning both the top Critics’ Week prize and a FIPRESCI award. Both “Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories,” meanwhile, took their share of citations on the US awards and festival trails. If it’s surprising to see the hot young filmmaker promoted to Cannes Competition status so quickly — skipping right past the intermediate grade of Un Certain Regard — it’s gratifying too.
The buzz: With “Take Shelter” still so fresh in critics’ minds, the buzz for that film feeds right into this one: Nichols may be the new kid in this club, but he arrives with more momentum than most. A pair of released clips for “Mud” project a great deal of confidence (and potential mainstream-arthouse appeal), while the presence of Witherspoon and McConaughey ensures the media’s attention will be fixed on the film when it premieres on the final day of Competition — a slightly unexpected (but not inauspicious) date for one of the festival’s big red-carpet attractions. It may not have the lofty auteur cache of some big guns in the lineup, but it’s eagerly awaited nonetheless.
The odds: For all that, it’d be a brave pundit who bets on this one taking the Palme — Nichols may be a hot new talent, but he’s still an outsider. Steven Soderbergh may have triumphed at the festival with his debut feature — and at the tender age of 26, to boot — but that was for a film far more European in sensibility than the distinctly American-flavored “Mud.” Critical acclaim, laying the foundation for a US awards-season run, is the real target here. Still, Matthew McConaughey for Best Actor? Stranger things have happened.
For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter.
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