Today’s topic: the man who keeps independent filmmaking alive. In an era where Hollywood blockbusters have taken over every big cinema theater in every country, independent cinema is starting to take a new turn and progress with time. Think about it, back in the day some of the biggest names were making movies for themselves instead of making them for big time producers. Quentin Tarantino himself started off by directing Reservoir Dogs with initially a budget of a mere $30.000 and then raised it with the help of actor Harvey Keitel to a more impressive but still low $1.5mln, this way creating what is hailed today as “the greatest independent film of all time”. The Coen Brothers made their first few movies – Blood Simple, Raising Arizona and Miller’s Crossing – with a just few bucks using either at the time unknown actors (Nicolas Cage, John Turturro) or washed up stars like Gabriel Byrne. Sure, other directors like veteran Michael Haneke, newcomer JC Chandor, Lisa Chodolenko, David Gordon Green, Lynne Ramsay are all skillful players of the same trade, but it seems like there is one voice that has done nothing but serve cinematic gems in a day where movies are usually overstuffed or overcooked with clichés and banalities. His tiny filmography gives us a glimpse of a man whose name someday will resonate across all audiences and whose signature will be visible in every book that belongs to film literature. His name is Jeff Nichols.
The boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, grew up to become a true master at his craft, a young mind who sees what other choose to ignore. His filmography of just three films (other two coming out in 2016) has had a huge impact on movie buffs and the way we think about independent filmmaking. Nichols chooses topics that are easy to relate to and makes them much more profound than what we’d expect. His debut, the 2007 Shotgun Stories, about family members fighting each other, gave critics such as the late mighty Roger Ebert a reason to take an eye off Hollywood for a moment and focus on something smaller, more delicate but just as dynamic. Nichols’ choice of settings is very particular and probably very personal to the director: the American countryside. Again, what other directors choose not to look at, Nichols prefers to study under a microscope. Cornfields, abandoned farms, ruined backyards, outdated cars, conservative communities, it’s all there. The environment his movies are wrapped in is unpredictable, hostile, presenting a tough life for any age and gender. It’s the poverty and the thirst for a better life in a better place that is unreachable, which make the viewer swallow every bite of his tasty food with great difficulty. It’s the raw images that Nichols throws in the audience’s face. However, it’s not a grim vision. There is also a lot of good in his movies; fatherly love, friendship, parents’ devotion, sacrifice. There is always something worth fighting for.
Nichols’ camerawork is steady. The movements are controlled, there is no rush in them, no shaking, the images he captures are almost a photo album filled with beautifully composed photographs. In his, in my opinion, best movie – 2011 Take Shelter – Nichols tells the story of a blue collar worker, a loving family man (played by Nichols’ friend and regular collaborator, the great Michael Shannon) who starts to have nightmares about an apocalypse, which to him becomes a reality. His goal? To save his family; his sweet wife (Jessica Chastain in top form) and his hearing-impaired daughter. Nichols manages to turn family love into a vehicle of danger and conflict. The man begins to build a storm shelter in the backyard, hurried by the dark visions that slowly start to take over his mind, making him a victim of his own fears and fantasies. It’s a small idea that takes over the screen, and turns into a giant, menacing vision of a society, which can’t tell the difference between fantasy and reality. The scenes where the husband, Curtis, sits down at the dinner table with his beautiful wife, Samantha and his daughter, Hannah, are the centerpiece of the action. Nichols chooses not to let the outside world creep into the plot, but rather mask a possible danger with the help of a loving unit – the family. What Curtis sees, hears and says at the dinner table, is what motivates him to drive further into the direction of insanity. Yes, it’s what it is. A brilliant example of minimalistic cinema bashing our heads in.
Nichols as a writer. Not only can he direct a tense scene with great ease and impressive simplicity but he can write too. Every character he creates is someone that feels so close to us, and yet so distant. A scary familiarity. That’s the case for his third and up until now, last movie – 2012 Mud. This time the writer/director explores the ruined villages located on the edge of the Mississippi. A merciless land where you either you make your living out of the river, you drown in it along with your debts. The titular Mud, is played by Matthew McConaughey (before the “McConaughey age” started, in some way Nichols introduced him to Oscar success), a square jawed, dirty man whose past is as mysterious as the fact that he lives on a boat trapped on top of a tree located on a river island. Mud is friendly and smokes a lot, and the only people he trusts to form a friendship with are teenage boys Ellis and Neckbone. Mud’s slurred speech and short sentences make of him a ghost, someone who may be there or may not, someone who isn’t entirely real. But Mud is, trust me. Nichols writes a friendship for the ages, three different individuals working on the same objective: take the boat off the tree and then… go on an adventure. It’s almost a romantic ballad, because Mud is looking for his old love that’s gone missing. As Nichols unwraps Mud’s past in front of our eyes we can’t help but ask for more. And in the end, it’s all worth asking.
Nichols may be someone who prefers to stay low-key, work on small productions and shoot on a limited budget, but his stories are bigger than life and filled to the brim with raw truth. He’s an artist whose work is unique and very personal, both qualities that are very rare and precious in a world of mindless Marvel movies and cheap television. One day, his name will be cited in film classics. Maybe not. Nichols doesn’t make movies for that. He makes them to put a smile on his own face. That’s admirable.