Mud Review


Nobody makes movies like Jeff Nichols, few people make movies as well as Jeff Nichols, and Jeff Nichols has never made a movie as rich and satisfying as Mud. The film is ultimately about love in all of its messy incarnations, but told from a child’s perspective, it takes the shape of a fairy tale. As with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter—Nichols’ exceptional freshman and sophomore efforts—Mud deals with a damaged protagonist, but even through the boy’s emotional tumult, Nichols’ never loses sight of the path to travel. The end result is a miraculous motion picture—a staggeringly honest and tender story of growing up and loving life in the Deep South.

Ellis (The Tree of Life‘s Tye Sheridan) is a river boy. Unlike his classmates and acquaintances who call an unnamed Arkansas town their home, Ellis—always alongside his best pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland)—takes pride in his houseboat and enjoys spending his free time navigating the river’s nooks and crannies. During one such outing, the two boys stumble across a boat perched high up in a tree. They plan to call it their own until they discover a filthy man has beat them to the punch. His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he’s stuck on that island with that boat until he figures out a way to free it from its canopy prison.

He enlists Ellis and Neckbone to fetch him the supplies he’ll need. They do so because Mud promises to give them one of his only possessions, a handgun, in return. Mud says he needs to free the boat so he can escape on it with his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but the boys know something is not quite right about his story. The town is plastered with Mud’s picture; it seems he’s a wanted and dangerous man.

Though the film runs a little long at two hours and 15 minutes, there’s a remarkable amount of subtext packed into the film that it’s hard to know where to begin. Love, it seems, is what I opened with, and that’s because it’s what hit me hardest about Mud. Love is all around Ellis, but he isn’t quite old or mature enough to recognize it. Instead, he sees parents ready to divorce, a home that’s about to be taken away, and grown adults in the form of Mud and Juniper who can’t quite see the emotional forest for the trees. In his mind, there isn’t anything that should keep these two apart, but reality says otherwise, and Ellis’ journey from point A to point B, in this respect, is Mud‘s greatest achievement.

A collective second on that list of achievements is the bevy of outstanding performances Mud has to offer. Sheridan is a revelation. The kid who had the least to do (and perhaps nothing to say) in The Tree of Life turns out one of the best performances by anyone of any age in 2013 so far. His Ellis is an open book, which allows Sheridan to convey a wide swath of emotions. He’s an innocent and optimistic. And thin-skinned with a quick temper, he lashes out when he feels like he’s been done wrong. His relationships are unconventional. His parents are distant creatures he doesn’t share much with. His best friend is more like a brother. His “girlfriend” is barely an acquaintance. And his source of purpose is a man in the woods. Not a lick of Ellis feels artificial. This is A+ character development with an A+ performance to match it.

McConaughey is Sheridan’s equal, even if he doesn’t get the screen time of his young costar. Though he’s the title character, Mud is unquestionably a line of support in Ellis’ story and development as a young man. His own story predictable, but emotionally arresting all the same. Think of a scorned prince that’s banished and forced to overcome extreme odds to rescue his now-captive princess. Ellis is going with it, though, and so will you. McConaughey is too magnetic to not get swept up in it all.

You’ll see a few Nichols regulars pop up throughout the supporting cast—Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ dad, Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian. They’re both predictably excellent. While most directors would allow them to remain in the background, Nichols takes the time to really flesh out their relationships with their respective “sons.” The result is a few thoughtful sequences about the meaning of unconditional love that I’ll let you discover for yourself.

As with Take Shelter, composer David Wingo provides a terrific score that drives quite a few sequences. And Nichols’ third partnership with cinematographer Adam Stone is a fruitful one that provides us some breathtakingly thoughtful composed shots of this unique setting and these amazing characters. There really isn’t a cinematic equal to Mud for me this year. It’s a shoo-in for my year-end top 10 list, and a movie I can’t wait to revisit and revisit and revisit.

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