Directed by Jeff Nichols
Screenplay by Jeff Nichols
Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
How long is Mud? 130 minutes.
What is Mud rated? PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.
Today’s Tom Sawyer (Mean, Mean Pride)
With just three feature films to his name, writer and director Jeff Nichols has already set himself a high standard. Both of his previous works, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are strong dramas with compelling characters, dark intrigue and impressive economy of style. With Mud, Nichols has progressed from making a good film to making a great film.
Mud concerns a community of Arkansas river folks, and among them a pair of teenage boys who find a dangerous secret hidden downstream. More broadly, it chronicles a young man’s tentative first steps toward understanding how the rest of his life will work. The story hearkens frequently to classics of American literature, most notably the river adventure stories of Mark Twain. Though Nichols, at least in the case of Mud, shows more hope for mankind’s fate than Twain typically did, his storytelling style bears traces of the romantic recklessness and moral uncertainty which the author often underscored as those things which make even the best of us all too human.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are inseparable friends, uncommonly content to lead lives that promise to take them nowhere special, in exchange for the seemingly eternal freedom to explore, discover and scavenge their native woods and waterways as they please.
Although in many ways akin to Tom Sawyer, Ellis could just as easily be a direct descendant of Jem Finch from Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. He has a stubborn moral compass that supersedes what others tell him is right or smart. He spends much of his time in emotional turmoil over life’s general unfairness. He seems the type of sensitive, intelligent boy who might grow up to be an author himself, and his greatest concern is making sure that concepts like love, loyalty and trust can exist, let alone survive, in the adult world he will soon enter.
The orphaned Neckbone is small, stoic and shrewd. Not to overtax the comparisons to Twain, he is a clear Huck Finn counterpart. In keeping with the timeless enjoyments of boyhood, he flings attitude like most kids skip rocks and swears as often as possible, presumably for the sheer exercise. For these roles, Nichols chose his young actors well and directed them with skill. Without their confident, charismatic performances, the movie’s other virtues would count for nothing.
One grand day, Ellis and Neckbone discover a rare treasure. On an island down river from their hometown of De Witt, there is a wooded island. On that island is a tree, and nestled high in that tree is a flood-wrecked boat – not a common aluminum john boat such as the boys use, but a fine wooden pleasure craft that could take them all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, if they could retrieve it and fix it up properly. Their excitement turns to mystification when they discover that living in their boat is a quiet man calling himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). He is in hiding from some kind of trouble in town, and soon employs the boys as his emissaries and spies, promising to hand over the boat to them once they have helped secure his escape.
Ellis, mired in the sort of compound romantic crisis common to boys of fourteen, is eager to swallow Mud’s account of trouble and woe, especially the part about a beauty in distress named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who hopes for a chance to escape alongside her noble fugitive. Ellis is struggling to come to terms with the erosion of his parents’ marriage while lovesick over his own precarious first crush. It figures that he would offer Mud and Juniper a helping hand. Theirs seems the closest thing to true, poetic love that Ellis can find – that is, as long as Mud’s tale can be trusted. A fount of superstitious rituals and cryptic tales, the crafty boatman keeps himself carefully shrouded in mystery.
In her celebrated story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” author Flannery O’Connor created a brutal, existentially deranged killer known as The Misfit. While not precisely of the same mold, Mud too is a misfit of dark, obscure origins. Though disarmed by his affable nature and apparent chivalry, Ellis and Neckbone receive several warnings not to trust him. Only Ellis’s enigmatic neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard, The Right Stuff) seems to know for certain whether Mud can and should be helped, but Tom is the kind of man to guard his judgments closely, forcing Ellis to operate mainly on his own instinct, and at his own peril.
Someone is obviously after Mud, but from which side of the law? The deeper Ellis and Neckbone venture, the more tricky and dangerous the path becomes. In this world, angry armed men lurk in some corners while cottonmouth snakes lurk in others. What percentage can there be in trusting a stranger’s hard luck story? Ellis resolves to find out, and Neckbone resolves not to let his friend get killed, so it is safe to bet that these boys are bound for some swift, harsh education in the ways of the world.
Matthew McConaughey continues a streak of recent high-profile appearances, including Bernie, Magic Mike and Killer Joe, with his pitch-perfect rendition of a vagabond outlaw. It may come as no surprise that the famously rugged and smooth-talking actor fits the role naturally, but even if snugly within his comfort zone, he appears fully engaged.
Meanwhile, a strong supporting cast fills out the picture. Michael Shannon, star of both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, appears as Neckbone’s benignly peculiar uncle Galen. Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and Ray McKinnon (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) are poignant as Ellis’s parents, a pair of simple folks groping with little success for mutual affection and understanding. Witherspoon languishes with appropriate Southern Gothic gravity. Paul Sparks (Boardwalk Empire) and Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall) make much of limited screen time as a pair of fearsome Texans named Carver and King.
Jeff Nichols is a moviemaker on the rise, and if he continues in this way he should have a prosperous career. He has a gift for telling old-fashioned stories that do not seem dated or out of their proper time. He picks talented performers capable of playing their parts with authenticity. He reaps a bounty from the latent beauty of the rural backwater, the value of a simple life lived well, and the terrible power of a human heart gone bad, more dreadful than any nest of snakes.