Directed by Jeff Nichols
Written by Jeff Nichols
With beguiling Southern charm and an exacting sense of dread, the riveting Mud is a surprisingly sweet third film from writer/director Jeff Nichols. Like his previous works Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories it showcases uniquely troubled characters from rural America who stubbornly stick by increasingly reckless decisions. The same kind of deeply flawed yet strongly principled men inhabit this story and are role models to impressionable boys looking to make a little sense of the world. Mud is an exceptional movie that takes us on an oddly hopeful tale of chivalry, sacrifice and what love can compel men to do.
14 year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan of Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland in his first role) are best friends from a small town in Arkansas that happen upon a mysterious fugitive hiding out on an island along the Mississippi River. While initially distrustful of a drifter who doesn’t own much more than than a lucky shirt and cowboy boots that stave off bad spirits, the boys get swept up in the romance of the man’s life on the lam. Ellis latches onto Mud (Matthew McConaughey) when he explains that he’s waiting for lifelong love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to join him. Finding a kindred romantic spirit and an instance of love that hasn’t died despite the hardest of circumstances provides Ellis with a righteous cause. Hiding the secret pain of witnessing his parents’ marriage slowly dissolve, he needs to see true love prevail. Ellis’ emotional vulnerability combined with Neckbone being neglected by his self-absorbed uncle Galen (played hilariously by Nichols’ regular Michael Shannon, inexplicably respecting his nephew’s right to do whatever he wants) spurs the duo into a compelling roller coaster ride of compassion that puts them directly in danger’s way as police and bounty hunters scour the land for Mud.
Following Magic Mike and Killer Joe, Mud cements the dramatic career shift of McConaughey from predominantly lame lead roles in subpar romantic comedies to a wild card character actor who gambles on ambitious cinema. Thoughtfully utilized in darker roles, his career has delightfully been reborn with a satisfying unpredictability. While McConaughey will undeniably be why audiences seek out this movie, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland’s performances are what truly make it worthwhile. Their endearing, no-nonsense approach to situations is priceless with a convincing chemistry that doesn’t falter for a moment.
The love that Ellis subscribes to is straightforward- not just about sex but definitively about honor and fidelity. The failures of the men in Ellis and Neckbone’s lives to live up to expectations as providers or partners underpin their motives to keep Mud’s dream of sailing off into the sunset with Juniper alive. The frank, whip smart dialogue enhances the boldness of the boys’ decisions as they carry out perilous tasks for Mud. The action feels completely in their hands as they make their way around murky rivers and motel parking lots with careful ingenuity. The boys being given ample, unsupervised time to explore the Southern wild afford them with a decisive agency to move and think freely for themselves. The story feels timeless as they exist without having to announce their every move and go on adventures that no one else needs to know about for them to be significant. It’s exhilarating to see an American movie located so far away from the outworn territory of creative strife or bored luxury in Los Angeles and New York City. With fame and greed out of the picture, love comes to the forefront of men’s motivations. Love failing so epically all around Ellis puts what good he sees in the world in jeopardy and forces him into a traumatic identity crisis that is agonizingly engaging.
Nichols doesn’t offer that life has any guarantees to it. Ellis wants so badly for love to work for those he holds dear and himself that our primary concern (besides his safety) becomes that he isn’t broken by life. Thankfully there is something that insists in the last moments of the film that the pursuit of love may defy wisdom but is still insanely worth the brave ideals it puts in play. There is a thoughtful hesitancy throughout the entire story that leaves characters in suspended moments of deliberation and renders us unable to judge them up until the very end. For some this may feel like not enough is happening but other moviegoers may find themselves absorbed in how the manifold hazards that these kids encounter for a stranger powerfully reflect a hope that even with just the possibility of love in our lives- the future feels brighter and worth trying for.
– Lane Scarberry