Mud, despite its name, is anything but muddy. It’s a finely tuned man’s-man tearjerker about boys coming-of-age, fathers realizing what’s important, the women they love and the trouble we’re all capable of making for ourselves and others. Writer director Jeff Nichols (who previously haunted us with another fine piece of blistering Americana in Take Shelter) crafts the film like an adaptation of a long-lost great American novel, framing it with a strong plot and filling it to the brim with fulfilling character arcs, character foils, and visual motifs of migrating birds, slippery snakes, open windows and the great wide flowing waters of the Mississippi.
Mud sure is a tale, but it’s also a man – a man called Mud, played with crafted precision by good ol’boy Matthew McConaughey, who in the past few years with roles in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and now Mud, has eradicated the stank left on him from years of bad rom-coms and “sexiest man alive” shenanigans to emerge as a truly great (dare I say method) actor. Here he’s a man in hiding on an island out in the middle of the Mississippi River running through Arkansas. He’s discovered by a pair of young teenage boys: good-hearted, sensitive and eager-to-throw-a-punch Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who previously only got to cry and play in The Tree of Life, but here emerges as an appealing young actor worth watching for in the future) and shit-talkin’ smart-as-a-whip Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who ventured out to the island on the promise of finding a cool-ass boat lodged in a treetop (“A helluva thing,” says Mud). Turns out Mud’s been living in that helluva thing, and boy, does he have some stories for them boys.
Nichols gives the story depth as we learn bit by bit the truth about Mud and get glimpses into the home lives of the boys. Ellis has to deal with his parents’ divorce and the threat of his home being destroyed due to some unjust law, and Neckbone is an orphan being raised by his oyster-diving uncle (Michael Shannon, so scary good in Take Shelter, and happy as a clam in a supporting role here).
Turns out Mud (like all the men/boys in the film in one way or another) is stuck in a bad way on some girl…this one named Juniper. Juniper is played by Reese Witherspoon, who, like McConaughey, is capable of a strong performance when not regulated to rom-com’s. She doesn’t get as much to chew on here as her male counterparts but does fine as Mud’s Southern-fried femme fatale with a heart of gold.
Rounding out the rock solid cast are Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ loving but distraught parents, Sam Shephard as a mysterious man living across the way from Ellis who has ties to Mud’s past, and as is Nichols’ MO – a second Boardwalk Empire cast member other than Shannon. This time it’s Paul Sparks showing up as no-good thug.
Meanwhile, hot-blooded murder, snake attacks, bounty-hunters, a scavenger hunt, broken promises and broken hearts fill up Mud’s running time and are sure to satiate an audience thirsty for some old-fashioned drama and willing to get lost in the story. In what may have been a nod to Polanski’s Chinatown and to echo the film’s sometimes neo-noir/Southern gothic/melodramatic undertones – Ellis spends most of the film walking around getting black eyes the deeper into trouble and the closer to the truth he gets (better than a broken nose I suppose).
While a white-knuckle shoot-out brings things to a messy climax, the fallout of this action might come across as too tidy. Nichols seems eager to remind us that this in not real life and is indeed just a story come to a complete close. But it’s a damn good story. And like all great stories, the best way to get the word out is to talk about them. So here’s Mud in your eye. Go see it now. It’s a helluva thing.
Written by David H. Schleicher