A film review by Craig J. Koban June 25, 2013

RANK: #11

MUD jjjj
 

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

There 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.  

Nichols, 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 window dressing. 

The 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. 

 

 

The 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.  

Romanticism 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. 

Matthew 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. 

The 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 and 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.

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