Jeff Nichols: The Savior of the South

© Focus Features

I. Independent Beginnings

The Deep South is a misunderstood, enigmatic region that, while not altogether forgotten, has often been characterized in films as a place where bad things happen to outsiders; good people who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. In Easy Rider’s Mississippi, they killed Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. The squeals from Ned Beatty still haunt the dreams of anyone looking to take a canoeing trip in the overgrown rivers of Northern Georgia’s Deliverance. The horror genre has made millions off of the idea that cannibalistic inbreds fills the trees and shacks of the many destitute towns across the territory. Few have attempted to paint the Deep South in a fair light, and even fewer have gotten it right even when they did. To portray the place correctly, one needs to understand it intimately.

Jeff Nichols, a native of Little Rock, Arkansas, understands the world of the South and her people. In his first three feature films, he shone a light on a way of life so foreign to most of the country that it might as well have been an alien planet. Many of his films could be based on events from 50 years ago, but they just as easily could be events occurring today, somewhere along the majestic Mississippi River. An entire world exists below the Mason-Dixon Line, almost untouched by time, waiting to have her stories told. Nichols, it seems, has taken on that job.

Instead of pursuing his film education in California or New York, Nichols instead chose the University of North Carolina to learn his trade and further develop his distinctly Southern voice (UNC is also where he met fellow filmmaker David Gordon Green—no stranger to the South—who became his confidante, friend, and, later, the producer on his first film). Following some timely advice from his father, Nichols started writing about the things he knew: back roads, fish ponds, cotton fields, and family. Needing an actor to embody his visions, he went after Michael Shannon, a Kentucky native whose eyes project more emotion than most actors can with their entire bodies. Nichols’ initial pitch was so inspiring he managed to persuade Shannon to work for free, to help save what little budget they had for the film.

A number of the choices Nichols has made along the way have been out of necessity, particularly on his first film, Shotgun Stories, but the decisions have often been made in the most Southern way possible: his mother cooked meals for the crew; his father helped shuttle people where they needed to be; his brother’s band, Lucero—a Memphis-based country-punk group with soul to burn—helped with the music (which turned out to be an inspired choice; Lucero pulls a certain amount of weight in the region, and the number of young men and women—myself once included—who drowned their heartbreak to “Drink ‘Till We’re Gone” or “My Best Girl” with a cooler of cold beer are as limitless as the supply of back roads littered across the landscape like stitches in a homemade quilt).

With Shotgun Stories, Nichols began his exploration of Southern Gothic themes in the day-to-day modern South; family, loyalty, religion, and poverty all come into play. The story follows Son (Michael Shannon), Boy (Douglas Ligon), and Kid (Barlow Jacobs), three members of the estranged side of the Hayes family who were abandoned by their father and left to be raised by their “hateful” mother. They are poor kids (Boy lives in a van and Kid lives in a tent), trapped by their own deficiencies and poor decisions. Instead of saving money, tending to his family, and trying to earn a promotion at the fish ponds, Son manages to gamble away what little he has, driving his wife and child away from him in the process. Boy lives in his van to save money while trying to make it as a youth basketball coach, but when he drinks homemade margaritas during the middle of what looks to be a work day, the flaws in his plan begin to appear. Kid, working to save what money he can so that he can get engaged, is so consumed with self-doubt that the idea of bettering himself only pushes him further along the path of self-destruction.

It would be all too easy to blame the Hayes’ kids problems on their own decisions (particularly since Son sets off a blood feud with his father’s other family by spitting on the dead patriarch at his own funeral), but in Nichols’ world, it’s not that simple. Blood is shed, and for a time, it seems that no one will survive. But Nichols does something special instead. With Kid dead and Son lying in a hospital bed, Boy places a shotgun to the head of Cleaman Hayes. If he pulls the trigger only John and Stephen, two hot-headed younger siblings, will remain on the family tree, without their voice of reason (Cleaman)—which could easily lead to the annihilation of one of the sides of the family, if not both. Boy’s ultimate decision to spare Cleaman, though a measure of grace, is also about protecting both himself and Son, ensuring that both will be allowed a fair shake at the future. In return for this act of kindness, Cleaman, John, and Stephen spare Boy when the tables are later turned. The clemency spreads and the feud dissipates; Nichols allows his characters to choose loyalty and love over the hate they had grown up knowing.

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In his follow-up film, Take Shelter, Nichols explored the nature of mental illness and the responsibility of parenthood by crafting a post-modern take on Noah’s Ark. The film was set in Lagrange, Ohio, but it might as well have been Canton, Mississippi. Take Shelter has all the traits and scenery of a classic Southern Gothic film, from the deeply flawed, eccentric patriarch to the rural locales that seems to inspire anxiety. The story revolves around Curtis LaForge (Michael Shannon again), a husband and father who starts experiencing visions of impending doom that begin to change him on a fundamental level. His relationships deteriorate, especially with his wife (Jessica Chastain). He gambles his income and insurance—necessary to care for his hearing-impaired daughter—by illegally borrowing equipment from his construction job to build his shelter. The risk, however calculated, could cost his family everything; the relationships between husband and wife, father and daughter are stretched as far as they can go. As an audience, we’re never quite sure: is there an actual storm coming, or are Curtis’s hallucinations somehow a product of a genetic malfunction? Ultimately, the point becomes moot. What matters most is that Curtis and Samantha find reconciliation, displaying the type of loving bond you would expect to see in a pair of old, Southern grandparents who have overcome years of arguments and turmoil. No matter the battle, they overcome. Together.

Critically speaking, Nichols was booming; each of his first two films received perfect scores from Roger Ebert, and high praise from most others. But if he wanted to attempt stories with a larger scope (not to mention a larger budget and crew), he had to find a way to bring in bigger stars. The best way he knew to do that was to write pieces for specific individuals, which led to Mud, his 2012 film which unofficially helped usher in the McConaissance. With Matthew McConaughey on board in the titular role, Nichols brought in Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s alienated lover. Nichols filled numerous other roles based on both acting ability and skill; he wanted actors who could handle dirt bikes and boats easily because it would make for easier filming, while also adding an additional layer of authenticity.

Mark Twain’s influence on Mud, particularly in the friendship between the two young boys, Ellis and Neckbone, is immediately noticeable. The boys navigate a deeply Southern life of exploration and adventure. The river is their entire world—where they are allowed to scavenge, where the patriarchs of their respective families make a living, where they go to get away from the struggles of life. It’s also where they first come across Mud, a dirty drifter who has found himself starving on “their” island. His tales of love eventually coax the boys into helping him.

The independent scene was a proving ground for Nichols, a place where he could hone his skills and show the world that he was ready for more. Shotgun Stories was placed on numerous lists of top films of the year. Take Shelter was nominated for four Saturn Awards, including Best Horror or Thriller Film. Mud was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes.

Nichols was ready for the next step.

II. An Exploration into the Unknown Familiar

Despite his mastery of the Southern Gothic independent film, Nichols has striven to become so much more. Each film was a chance to refine his craft. In Shotgun Stories, the camera moved very little and financial struggles were high. He built upon that with Take Shelter, branching out into science fiction, learning to maximize a much larger budget and adding a more sophisticated visual style to his repertoire. His use of special effects were crisp and short, which kept the viewer from being overexposed to them—a technique that would serve him well down the road. His work with McConaughey and Witherspoon on Mud added Hollywood credibility to his portfolio.

With opportunities all around him, Nichols approached Warner Bros with an idea for a science fiction film that would allow him to prove himself on a much grander stage. Perhaps it was his stubbornness (another noteworthy trait of a Southerner) or his passionate vision that caused the studio to have faith in him. Either way, the project—Midnight Special—was greenlit, and the studio gave him a budget that was more than the amount of his first three films combined.

Though he’d dabbled in sci-fi with Take Shelter, Midnight Special would prove to be much, much more—science fiction, Southern Gothic, and road movie all rolled into one. It would be his homage to Spielberg, his Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Nichols wanted to create a big movie, one that felt larger than life, but his budget wasn’t limitless, so he still had to choose his battles. It wasn’t going to be a giant CGI-fest, and it’s doubtful Nichols would have taken that route even if he’d had the budget. Instead, he would return to his Southern Gothic roots and themes in a big, sci-fi summer blockbuster.

Michael Shannon, in his fourth Nichols film, plays Roy Tomlin, a man intent on rescuing his biological son, Alton (Jaeden Lieberher), from both a cult leader (Sam Shepard) and the US Army. Alton is a special kid, to say the least, with powers beyond the scope of human comprehension. His eyes are incredibly photosensitive, emitting beams that can transfer knowledge—and cause destruction. He poses a national security risk because he can obtain information from satellites (which the cult leader, Calvin, has been using for years in his sermons). By saving Alton, Roy comes back in contact with his son’s biological mother, Sarah (Kirsten Dunst), who joined their cause. The ensuing chase culminates in Alton finding his desired destination. However, Nichols allows the viewer only bits and pieces of information at a time, so the journey is a methodical one, and even once the final destination is reached, the answers aren’t assured. He’s almost Kubrickian in his approach here, allowing the viewer to sink or swim. He’s not going to hold your hand and lead you to the answer.

Midnight Special was a landmark film, even if commercially it didn’t do as well as might have been expected, earning back only about a third of its budget. From a critical standpoint, though, it was a sensation and it’s not hard to imagine that it will be a cult hit remembered with reverence decades from now. The film serves as a proverbial bridge in Nichols’ career, bringing together the genres, regions, themes, and people from which his past films had made themselves known. The love and protection from Curtis and Samantha in Take Shelter could be seen in Roy and Sarah, as were the moments that made you question what was real and what was imagined. The beautiful foreign kingdom felt somehow in the right place in the swamp-like Florida landscape, much the like the boat in the tree in Mud felt normal. The flight from a murderous rampage is as important in Midnight Special as it was in Shotgun Stories. The medium was slightly different in his first big budget film, but the result was eerily similar to his past works. His Southern spin seeped into genres across the board.

III. Facing the Demon and the Battles Won

Perhaps no topic in Southern cinema is as daunting as that of race. For most of Nichols’ career, despite hitting a number of important issues for Southerners, the demon that is racism had remained untouched. Many have explored it before him, and many will do so after, because it has marred the reputation of an entire region of the country, likely forever. For all the progress that has occurred, it has never happened quickly enough. Despite how needed these films are, a number of people in the South will immediately put up a hardened, calloused shell as soon as the previews for one pops up on a screen. So many have made Southerners look like simpletons who just happened to have the wrong mindset and are in need of a slight amount of correcting, like a dog that needs a quick pop with a newspaper. Many racial reconciliation films refuse to push the envelope with what they’re trying to portray, as if by making these cruel people seem somewhat funny and harmless, they can show the world that people of this ilk can do no real harm. It always seems so disingenuous. The sheriff in the beginning of Hidden Figures, for example, goes from hateful to impressed to amused at the sky in less than three minutes. That character, and many like him, lacks the heart and depth to provide any real insight into that time and that world. It’s what makes it all so damned difficult. The line to walk is a very narrow one.

Until now, all of Nichols’ feature films have been original pieces he created from scratch. There were no real classic protagonists or antagonists in his films; they were complex stories in which good and evil were mostly relative. But in Loving, his fifth and most recent film, he chose to tackle the real life story of Richard and Mildred Loving, plaintiffs in the monumental 1967 U.S. Supreme Court decision to invalidate laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

Whether it’s fair or not, Loving is the film that would define him as a Southern filmmaker. It’s the nature of the demon. He had to create something memorable and lasting, while still remaining true to the subject matter. There needed to be a moment that sticks with an audience for days to come, and he successfully manages that thanks to a haunting performance by Marton Csokas as Sheriff Brooks. After raiding the house of the recently married Richard (Joel Edgerton) and Mildred (Ruth Negga), and tossing both in jail, Brooks has a sit-down with Richard in which he lays out his feelings on the matter quite clearly. The utter disgust he shows when discussing the idea of an interracial marriage (while throwing out not so veiled threats) emerges as one of the most powerful cinematic moments of the entire year. Nichols doesn’t have to throw in mindless violence to show the severity of the situation. Instead it’s spoken in a soft voice, loud and clear.

Loving could very easily have been a courtroom drama. The pieces are all there. However, as he’s demonstrated throughout his career, Nichols doesn’t see things the obvious way. Instead, his film offers a look into the lives of a struggling family living with the effects of real racism. Richard and Mildred were stripped of their home and turned into a national spectacle. It wasn’t something that they were comfortable doing, and the chance for exploitation was there. Nichols shows how tension can be built even in a house where love is prevalent. Innocence spawned danger, and from that danger, resilience and hope for a better day were born. Nichols accomplished what so few directors have: he vanquished the demon.

In each of Nichols’ films, a character is doing whatever they must do to protect their loved ones. Loyalty and love between family and friends are so deeply embedded in Southern culture that at times it seems to hold the very fabric of the region together. Boy loved Son and needed to keep together what little family they had left. Curtis LaForge and Roy Tomlin loved their children and fought armies both domestic and supernatural to protect them. Richard and Mildred loved each other enough to fight an ugly fight.

Loyalty in Nichols’ films is pervasive and all-encompassing, and he appears to understands it on a personal level as well: Michael Shannon has been in every one of his films, and plans to be in all the rest. He has used the same cinematographer, Adam Stone, for all of his films. His brother, Ben, and his friend, David Wingo, have made musical contributions to four of the five films. Actors like Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Joel Edgerton, and Paul Sparks keep finding places in his stories. This constant practice with involvement from the same people breeds greatness. Nichols is not just of the South; he is the South in his actions, his decisions, and his soul.

Nichols has shown that Southerners are not all cartoon-like caricatures and hicks. They aren’t all racist and deplorable. There are a number of horrible people there, sure, but it’s hardly all of them. They have merit; they have worth. He could have chosen films with settings like Atlanta, Nashville, or Memphis to appeal to a broader audience, but instead, he selected the lesser known the places, the shotgun towns, the derelict shambles of civilization. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times during the filming of Mud, Nichols expressed his feelings on creating art out of what these places are and may not always be:

“These places and people have such a particular accent and culture and they’re quickly getting homogenized. I wanted to capture a snapshot of a place that probably won’t be there forever.”

In the final moments of Shotgun Stories, Nichols makes a promise of sorts, one that continues throughout most of his films. He showed that things, no matter how desolate, no matter how broken—whether trapped in a cyclical pattern or falling into a downward spiral—don’t always have to remain the same. Son and Boy didn’t have to keep the feud going until they were all dead. Pride, honor, and ego were not going to force them to lose what family they had left. You don’t have to be loyal to the dead while the living suffer the consequences. Chains can be broken, and people can change. That’s the prayer all Southerners believe can become a reality, and that’s the hope that Nichols has shown to the rest of the world.