Directed by Jeff Nichols
Written by Jeff Nichols
All coming-of-age stories are, really, about the death of innocence, the moment at which each of us realizes that our innate ability to be impressionable has allowed us to blind ourselves to adults’ imperfections. As such, the new film Mud is a welcome entry into the genre, documenting a particularly memorable time for a young boy as he comes to grips with the idea that he cannot bend his world to his will, to make it as perfect as he’d like. As a follow-up to Take Shelter, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ 2011 apocalyptic drama starring Michael Shannon, Mud is a step down, but it’s still a wholly engrossing, shaggy-dog story.
Ellis and Neckbone are two 14-year olds living a peaceful yet childishly raucous life on the Arkansas River, the former working with his dad in the fish business as they survive on their ramshackle houseboat. One day, Ellis and Neckbone make a trek to a nearby island and stumble upon Mud, a rambling charmer living there who, as luck would have it, is played by Matthew McConaughey, rambling charmer by trade. Mud convinces the boys, especially Ellis, to help him find his true love, Juniper, and get a boat he’s found keeping time in a tree back on the open water. His hope to vacate the premises is revealed to be thanks to a dark past he’s running from, but Ellis and Neckbone continue to risk everything they have, mostly because Ellis is desperate to find or create some domestic unity in a life that may soon be rent of it entirely.
Nichols’ script is deliberate, if subtle, in its presentation and point of view, consistently focusing on how Ellis sees things. His naked attempt to do whatever he can, and then some, to put Mud and Juniper back in each other’s arms is because his houseboat lifestyle, being able to sail serenely on the muddy waters, is coming to an end. Ellis’ parents (Sarah Paulson and Raymond McKinnon) aren’t seen together unless they’re fighting, and his mother wants both a separation and to become a townie, a fate neither man in her life can fathom. Mud and Juniper are a way out, the mother and father Ellis dreamt of having. And Ellis also wants to wrangle some connection with a local high-school girl; we observe him with a worldly air, knowing that these relationships he wishes to balance will topple down on his head painfully. The story, however, is told at such a remove that, especially in the second act, Mud very nearly becomes an anti-female tall tale. But Mud is less a screed against the scourge of falling in love with the fairer sex than a depiction of various men in states of arrested development, all trying to break out with varying degrees of success.
McConaughey’s comeback remains unabated. As with his darker turns in Magic Mike and Killer Joe last year, he shrewdly subverts his persona as a wily, attractive lead here. Mud’s scruffy, unshaven, overly tanned, and even has a nasty upper set of teeth (well, relative to McConaughey’s appearance), but he talks and walks like the raffish sort we associate with his performer. Reese Witherspoon, the other major star in the film, has far less to do as Juniper, but in her few scenes, she’s able to give the impression that what we know of Mud is highly dubious, as is his vision of their star-crossed love affair. In her key moments, we appreciate that the man Ellis has come to idolize is a fiction he’s allowed to seep into his brain stem. Relative newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as Ellis and Neckbone, are truly impressive, never once seeming precocious or forced in their mannerisms or delivery. The adults surrounding them—Neckbone’s uncle, played by Shannon, or fellow houseboat owner Sam Shepard, for example—may be familiar to us from their past films, but the two boys look like they were plucked off the river delta for the film, honest and true in their work.
Mud is, perhaps, not as weighty or daunting a film as Take Shelter was. (No scene here reaches the volcanic heights of Shannon’s third-act breakdown in that film.) But Jeff Nichols remains an American filmmaker who should not be ignored, and Mud is another impressive addition to his still-fresh body of work. He’s broken into the big time, with more familiar faces lighting up the screen, but this film feels extremely down-to-earth and homespun. It would be easy for a movie set in the backwoods of the South to come off as stilted or exaggerated, to appear false in every way. Mud does not have such pitfalls; its setting and staging are such that the low-class universe is alien to us, more impoverished but more at peace with nature. It hearkens to a simpler time, much like childhood, while touching on the idea that growing up means leaving such childish things of the past behind you.
— Josh Spiegel