The title character of Jeff Nichols’s Mud is the kind of romanticized outlaw one finds in adventure books. With a magnetic personality and a star-crossed love story, he was born to be an enigmatic presence on an uninhabited island. Matthew McConaughey plays this man who comes from out of nowhere, yet appears to be in his natural habitat, with gritty cheerfulness, creating a character who seems good-natured even when he’s obfuscating. For a 14-year-old in search of a hero, he’s an ideal candidate.
Mud combines the poignance of a boy coming to terms with life’s realities with the excitement of top-notch suspense. The film isn’t as singular in form and vision as Nichols’s previous efforts, Take Shelter (2011) and Shotgun Stories (2007), but it doesn’t need to be. Nichols works within the coming-of-age genre, mixes in elements of a crime thriller, and elevates it all with a supreme sense of character, place and detail.
Tye Sheridan stars as Ellis, a 14-year-old who senses his world changing. Ellis lives in an Arkansas river community that’s a relic from another time. He and his neighbors live in makeshift bankside houses that are no longer legal, but of which the current occupation is grandfathered in. His mother (Sarah Paulson) has had enough of the life and of her husband, and is leaving. His father (Ray McKinnon) wants to stay and continue to make his living on the river, but the house was passed down on his wife’s side, meaning that when she leaves, they all have to leave.
Realizing that his parents have failed in their own relationship, Ellis desperately searches for something he can believe in. That’s where Mud comes in. Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), head to an island on the Mississippi River, where they found a boat dramatically stranded in a tree, washed up there after a flood. Their plan is to turn the boat into a secret project, but they soon discover that they aren’t the only ones who have been inside it.
Despite a plot that exists entirely in the realm of the possible, Nichols gives Mud a fantastical air. It’s like a childhood memory with embellishments and holes that have been filled in. Mud himself is a symbol of the romantic and the unlikely. He first appears in a classically mysterious manner—unseen one moment, standing casually by the water’s edge the next.
McConaughey has earned considerable praise for his performance, and rightly so. He is able to relay exactly what Ellis sees in the character, while also showing the flaws and fragility that the boy is too naive to notice. Mud is obviously running from the law, so he enlists Ellis and Neckbone to help him communicate with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), back on the mainland. As Ellis works loyally to help Mud, he also experiences his own first love in the form of a girl from town named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).
All these life milestones swirl up a wave of emotion in the young protagonist. The film effectively keeps us in Ellis’s frame of mind while creating full-fledged characters out of the entire cast. The supporting players, including Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, add real depth to the proceedings. When tension mounts, the scenes are extremely effective because we understand what’s at stake for each character.
The location’s tight connection to the story recalls John Sayles films like Limbo—the story could not be transplanted to a different setting and achieve the same result. The geography and the culture of this Arkansas riverside community are key to the characters’ identities, and constantly affect their actions.
Ellis isn’t merely resisting change—he knows that there’s something special about his remote, renegade lifestyle. The divide between the river’s Tom Sawyer-esque terrain and the town’s strip malls and motels couldn’t be clearer. The disconnect between the two environments parallels the divide between childhood and maturity.
The island’s dangers are natural. The poisonous snakes that Mud fears have always been threats, and will always be present. If you’re smart and know your way around, you can avoid them. But outside, in the big bad world of human beings, there are angry, vindictive villains bent on violence. Mud’s actions bring a certain level of wrath upon him. Ellis may never be able to conclusively gauge the nobility or lack thereof in those actions, but he will never forget their consequences.
Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker
Release Date: Apr. 26, 2013