Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson
Mud is a coming-of-age tale which is as bleak as it is beautiful. It is a formidable addition to the gallery of McConaissance art (the array of films Matthew McConaughey featured in between 2011 and 2014 such as Dallas Buyers Club, Killer Joe and Magic Mike that proved he was indeed a very good actor). Children and animals are infamously difficult to work with and Jeff Nichols’s directing prowess is clearly on display as he works with both. The young actors in this film are brilliant, both of whom went on to receive various nominations and wins for their work. Mud is atmospheric and touching, it’s well-written, well-acted, and well worth a watch.
On the banks of the Mississippi, two teenagers find a boat in a tree. It’s a strong opener for any story. When the boys discover Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in said boat, they are thrown into a tale of love, revenge, murder and heartache. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are on the cusp of adulthood, trying to make sense of an adult world that barely makes sense to the grown ups around them.
Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is in town to reunite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but this is made almost impossible by the fact he is a wanted felon. McConaughey’s languorous voice and manner is perfect for the strange drifter. Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), the needed injection of realism and cynicism, is wary at first and almost mercenary in his interactions with Mud. He’s only happy to help if he gets that boat. Ellis (Tye Sheridan), however, is completely drawn in by Mud’s charm. Tye Sheridan’s portrayal of the hopeful, innocent, heart-on-his-sleeve boy, Ellis, is a tour de force. His emotions bubble under the surface like snakes in murky water – only ever half submerged. The film is titled Mud, but really the story belongs to Ellis.
Like so many coming-of-age tales, Mud is about love. Or it starts out that way. Ellis is unhappy that his parents want to separate, and he is still the age where everything is black and white. Right or wrong. No middle ground and no grey areas. He is so desperate to believe that love will triumph that he throws himself right into Mud’s world. Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is more a notion than a fully-rounded character – entirely intentional and not an indictment of Witherspoon’s acting. She is an unattainable dream in Daisy Dukes. She represents a fairy tale to Ellis, and he is willing to risk his life to reunite her with Mud.
The unique beauty of stories told from a child’s perspective is that the viewer understands more than the character. Sometimes this means that the plot becomes too formulaic or predictable, but when done well it’s something special. Part of the enjoyment then comes from watching the characters journey from naivety to understanding.
We know that Ellis wants to fix Mud’s problems because he is entirely unable to fix his own. Ellis’s journey to realising this becomes the main thread that keeps all the other themes knitted together. Tye Sheridan’s outburst at this realisation is heart-thumping-in-your-throat powerful.
After a slow burn of a build up, the climax of the film is long and intense; it wouldn’t be out of place in a Western. This is where Mud, a man caught in arrested development and seemingly incapable of change for most of the film, shows how much he has actually come to care for the boys. And his impact on their lives becomes cemented.
There are parallels made between women and snakes in Mud, which could easily be seen as problematic. But the notion of men being bitten (by either) is sensitively handled by Nichols. It is true that the women characters in Mud are on the periphery, but that makes sense. Mud is a story about boys becoming men. Unfortunately, the men these boys have as role models are left somewhat wanting. However, Ellis’s enduring belief in love suggests that women are going to be an important and prominent part of his life, that pursuing the chance of love is worth any heartbreak that might come with it.
The cinematography in Mud is impressive, expertly handled. The Arkansas delta is a similar style of setting as Where the Crawdads Sing and Beasts of the Southern Wild. And like those films, this landscape becomes an additional silent character, almost as important as those with speaking parts. The too-bright light and eerily vast water ways are the perfect setting. Everything is dizzying, disorientating and seemingly unmanageable. It adds a palpable tension to an already dramatic tale. The characters in Mud live on the fringes, they are hemmed in by the perils of both human life and the wilderness that surrounds them.
This is a community in which people are poor, and their circumstances are written all over their faces. The burdens they carry can be seen in their tightly clenched jaws and their heavy brows. The decisions they make are driven by their lack of opportunities, the smallness of their world. Ironically, the huge open water is what traps them. The themes of Mud are all well-trodden, but given the strength of the acting cast, the originality of the script and the stunning direction, the end result is something pretty remarkable.