A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2013
2013, PG-13, 130 mins.
2013, PG-13, 130 mins.
Matthew McConaughey as Mud / Tye Sheridan as Ellis / Jacob Lofland as Neckbone / Michael Shannon as Galen / Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship / Reese Witherspoon as Juniper
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols
is not one unauthentic moment to be had all the way through
writer/director Jeff Nicholsí MUD, his follow-up film to his stellar
2011 drama TAKE SHELTER (which I
proudly placed on my list of the Ten
Best Films of that year). A
cursory understanding of the most cherished literary works of Mark Twain
can be felt through and through MUD, as Nichols attempts a clear
modern-day homage to Twainís TOM SAWYER and HUCKLEBERRY FINN.
Beyond that, MUD further embellishes TAKE SHELTERís themes of
troubled characters and their relationships to their families as well
as exploring the nature of both adult and adolescent love.
Perhaps more crucially, MUD represents an autobiographical take for
the Arkansas-born Nichols on what it was like for him to be a young and
inquisitive lad growing up in the South.
as he demonstrated in TAKE SHELTER, is an unqualified master of mood and
visual texture in MUD (amazingly, just his third film behind the camera).
He not only is able to elicit performances of absolute truth and
down-to-earth grit, but he also manages to evoke the heartland of America
that feels both mythic and natural at the same time.
He understands how to steep his films in his environments and
further knows precisely how to ground his characters within them.
The Southern Arkansas Delta backdrops in MUD are almost an ethereal
character in their own right, where the Mississippi River vividly opens up
to a more expansive and alluring world that attracts the filmís
wide-eyed adolescent protagonists. The
rich sense of atmospheric and observational detail in MUD is what
separates it from so many other coming-of-age adventure tales; this is a
rare case where a photographically stunning film and its locales
compliment the story and performances and just doesnít serve as pure
young heroes at the heart of MUD are played in two of the most
unassumingly natural youth performances that Iíve seen in a long while:
the quiet and soft spoken Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his BFF, the colorfully
wise-assed Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are a pair of Arkansas teens that like
to secretly trek through the Arkansas delta in a spirited quest for fun and escape
from their mundane family lives. They
manage one day to find their way to a very small and isolated island on
the Mississippi River where Neckbone discovered a boat that is, as unlikely as
it sounds, stuck way, way up in a tree. The boys stake a claim to the boat, which will most likely
become their new go-to fortÖ.that is until evidence quickly surfaces
that there is indeed someone already using the boat as his home.
man in question is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a greasy haired, unshaven,
and squinty-eyed soul whose outward appearance alone makes him appear to
be a bum. Mud, however, is
relative calm, soft-spoken, and congenial to the boys upfront, but he
boasts that the boat is his, seeing as he came to it first. Compellingly, the boys continue to return to the island and
bring the starving man some food and supplies, to which Mud graciously and
courteously accepts. The more
time that the boys spend with him the more he slowly opens up; his real reason
for his island banishment is largely to do with the love of his entire
life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whose ex-boyfriend was murdered by Mud
when he discovered signs of abuse. Now
a fugitive from the law, Mud seeks a way to get the boat down from the
trees, repair it, and then secretly locate Juniper so they can escape from
the Mississippi together.
is heavily entrenched in Nicholsí film.
For Ellis and Neckbone, Mud represents a figure that euphorically
takes them away from their respective personal problems back home.
Neckboneís oyster fisherman Uncle (played by the always eminently
watchable Michael Shannon, a Nichols regular) seems to have little time
for his nephew and Ellisí own mother and father are heading towards a
divorce. Itís no wonder
that Ellis in particular looks up to and sympathizes with Mudís plight and
yearning to be back with Juniper, which further makes it relative easy for
Ellis to partake in all of Mudís requests to assist him with reclaiming his
love and place in the world. Just
as, say, Huck Finnís relationship with Jim went on to affect his
worldview, so do does Ellisí the more he spends with Mud.
This is hammered home in a wonderfully delineated subplot involving
Ellis trying to defend the honor of a local high school senior that
heís smitten with, mostly because he sees Mud as a consummate figure of
gallant character that would do anything for the woman he most adores.
Yet, when the unkind reality of fragile adolescent yearning comes
crashing down on Ellis, he also begins to learn the harsher truths of
Mudís relationship with Juniper, which causes him to radical re-consider
Mud in less-than romantic terms.
McConaughey has miraculously emerged in the last few years as a star that
was more initially known for his physical assets alone to one that has become a
deeply nuanced, heartfelt, and gritty performer that seems to be able to submerge within his morally questionable characters.
Mud is a man of many contradictions; he comes off as a deeply
sincere and polite southern gentleman while, at the same time, appears coldly enigmatic, aloof, and guarded. Much as he did with his superlative performance in last
yearís KILLER JOE (one of the best
non-Oscar nominated performances of recent memory), McConaughey brings so
much quiet authority and presence to Mud that you are drawn to him with
his first reveal. There are
so very few actors as of late that have radically retro-fitted their
careers as resolutely as McConaughey has; pay attention here, Academy.
other performances here are note-perfect.
Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland donít so much act as they just
flawlessly inhabit their respective roles; they bring so much raw tenacity
searing legitimacy to their parts (Sheridan in particular has to carry the
emotional burden and weight of the film on his young shoulders, and he
does so with total aplomb). Reese
Witherspoon deglams herself rather admirably here; she has not been this
understated and assured in years. Ray
McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are persistently convincing as Ellisí
troubled parents that try as they may to raise a boy during what appears
to be the end of their marriage. Michael
Shannon commands attention in any scene he inhabits in a film, but it is a surprising change of pace to see him more
dialed-down and low key here.
Perhaps the real standout here is Nichols, whom after TAKE SHELTER and now MUD can certainly take claim to be one of the best of a new breed of soulful American filmmakers. He has such an unforced and discrete knack for rooting MUD as both a Southern fable of mythic splendor while simultaneously digging deep into the convoluted web of emotional conflicts that reside within his characters. All of his personas have an atypical depth and genuineness about them. The central quandary of MUD is whether Ellis will just dutifully subscribe to the more idealistic notion of love overcoming every obstacle or bitterly accept that the cold veracity of love is not a consequence-free entity. The manner that Nichols explores these ideas alongside issues of family loyalty, codes of honor, and the notion of what makes a true family unit strong makes MUD such a richly drawn and intoxicating drama. Ultimately, the film is about Ellisís internal battle with what his heart wants and what his head tells him. In many ways, MUD intuitively captures what itís like to be an impressionable and naÔve boy far better than most dramas, which makes it one of 2013ís finest films thus far.