Director : Jeff Nichols
Screenplay : Jeff Nichols
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Tye Sheridan (Ellis), Jacob Lofland (Neckbone), Reese Witherspoon (Juniper), Sarah Paulson (Mary Lee), Ray McKinnon (Senior), Sam Shepard (Tom Blankenship), Michael Shannon (Galen), Paul Sparks (Carver), Joe Don Baker (King), Johnny Cheek (Kyle), Bonnie Sturdivant (May Pearl), Stuart Greer (Miller), Clayton Carson (Pryor)
Like his previous film, the slow-burn, emotionally rending masterpiece Take Shelter (2011), Jeff Nichols’s Mud balances precariously on a character’s intense belief in something that may or may not be so. The stakes are decidedly different in the two films, although emotionally they are very much in the same vein. In Take Shelter, Michael Shannon’s Curtis, a Midwestern family man, was plagued with dreams that he took for premonitions of an impending apocalypse, while in Mud, the main character, a 14-year-old boy from Arkansas named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), is convinced that the titular character (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive who is hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, is a romantic hero. In both cases, the protagonist’s belief profoundly affects their lives, as Curtis begins sinking his family’s future into a storm shelter even as he recognizes the potentially devastating absurdity of his actions, while Ellis builds his entire concept of love around Mud’s devotion to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his long-time girlfriend on whom he is waiting. For both man and boy, the belief shapes his worldview, for better or for worse.
Ellis first discovers Mud, whose name bears no direct relation to his understandably grungy appearance, when he and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), sneak out to the island to claim a motor boat they heard had gotten stuck high in a tree after a flood. They find the boat, but their claim to it is stifled by the fact that Mud has been making it his home while waiting for a prearranged meeting date with Juniper. Mud, whose cracked-tooth grin and no-nonsense demeanor evinces a natural charisma that McConaughey makes all his own, strikes a deal with the boys: He will give them the boat if they bring him food, and while Neckbone is skeptical (“He’s a bum!” he says several times), Ellis sees something in the laconic, scroungy fugitive, whose messy hair and dirty hands suggest an earthy sensibility that dovetails with his sense of romanticism and belief in talismans (his white shirt, which remains almost mystically clean despite his living conditions, is one of his most important good luck charms). Like Curtis’s dreams in Take Shelter, Mud’s romanticism may be self-delusion or a it may be the real deal, but either way it defines him and draws Ellis into his orbit. Ellis is taken with Mud’s charisma and seeming openness, but even more so with his romance with Juniper, who he and Neckbone find living in a motel in town. Her bad-girl exterior is portent of bad things to come, but Ellis is so smitten with the idea of their love that he is willing to help Mud, especially after he discovers the reason for his fugitive status.
Ellis’s devotion to Mud’s romantic travails stem in part from the strained relations in his own household, as his mother and father (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are at odds and teetering on the brink of divorce. Having spent their life together on an inherited houseboat on the muddy bank of a Mississippi tributary making a living selling fish from the river, she is ready to move on and take up residence in town, while he resists any notion of change. Part of the film’s emotional dynamism emerges from the complexity of Ellis’s parents, who in many ways represent gendered Southern stereotypes (he is stoic and refuses to argue, while she implores him for emotional connection and yearns to be a “townie”), but develop into moving portraits of the conflict between growth and stasis. Yet, for Ellis, all he can see in them is the break-up of his family, people who are supposed to love each other and, from his perspective, don’t. So, in some way, helping Mud and Juniper run off together is his way of keeping his dreams of true love alive.
As a romantic, Mud is given to elaboration and exaggeration (“I don’t traffic in the truth too often,” he admits at one point), but does that make him a liar? It does to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), Ellis’s mysterious across-the-river neighbor who helped raise Mud and may or may not have been a CIA assassin. Blankenship also has a far different assessment of Juniper than Mud does, but even if he is “right” in a conventional sense, Nichols shows us that there are always deeper layers; she may not be true to Mud, but does that necessarily mean she doesn’t truly love him? He extends this sense of ambiguity to virtually every character on screen, including Neckbone’s uncle (Michael Shannon), a minor character who is first presented as a misogynistic sexual deviant, but is eventually revealed to be one of the more open-hearted characters in the film. In an opposite trajectory, Ellis learns firsthand the pains of heartbreak courtesy of an older high school girl whom he desperately wants to be his girlfriend, even though she ultimately proves to be less than sympathetic to his schoolboy romantic flights of fancy.
Nichols, a native of Arkansas, knows the physical and emotional terrain of the South very well. He professes a love of Southern literature, especially Flannery O’Connor and Larry Brown, although he seems most influenced here by Mark Twain, whose adventure stories Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer prized romanticism and loyalty above all else. He and cinematographer Adam Stone (who has shot all three of Nichols’s features) convey a potent sense of place, rendering the beautiful piney woods with a powerful sense of tactility that also extends to the film’s more mundane locations (a seedy motel, a grocery store, the inside of Ellis’s family’s houseboat). Nichols wrote and directed, and he paces Mud with a methodical sense of purpose, moving us slowly through the plot developments in a way that is studied, but never languid. Mud is a film that demands a certain patience, which it rewards with various emotional payoffs that aren’t ever quite what you expect.
As in Take Shelter, Nichols shows that “truth” is a tricky concept that fully deserves quotes around it, as each character pursues his or her own sense of it, meaning that none of them can fully cohere (which necessarily means that not every plot strand will have—or should have—a happy ending). Mud, for example, may be a loser in life, but to Ellis he is a beacon of romance and chivalry, a model to aspire to, which is why he’s so eager to help him. The film comes a bit off the rails in the final act as Nichols slips into more conventional genre territory as a band of mercenaries who have been tracking Mud lay siege on Ellis’s boathouse, bringing the film to a logical, albeit generic-feeling action climax. He still finds a way to end the film on several beautiful notes of grace, though, bringing our attention around to the fact that this has not been simply a coming-of-age story for Ellis, but for Mud, as well, which reminds us that there’s always room to grow.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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