Before the screening of Mud began, writer/director Jeff Nichols told the audience that this is “different from my last two films” (the good Shotgun Stories and the fantastic Take Shelter) but that he still gave the movie “something personal to anchor it.” Mud definitely feels like a more personal film. What kind of personal film is trickier to nail down. It’s about life living in Nichol’s home state of Arkansas, particularly river-life. It’s a coming of age story, two boys on a boyhood adventure. It’s about the relationship between fathers and sons. But primarily, it’s about love. The ideal of love, the heartbreak of love, the loss and failure and hope of love. But those are themes. What of the story?
Mud tells the story of 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, Tree of Life), who lives on the river in a small shanty-type house with his folks, and hangs out with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). One day, Ellis and Neckbone cross the river to a small little island, where a boat sits up in a tree. “Helluva thing, a boat in a tree” says Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who it turns out is living in the boat that Ellis and Neckbone were hoping to claim as the greatest treehouse ever. He’s haggard and sun-baked and living off whatever he can catch from the river. But he’s not a bum, as Mud makes clear to the boys, (though he may be a hobo and is definitely (temporarily) homeless). Mud is also a spiritual man, and a man desperately in love with Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), who he is hoping to meet up with in a few days. But to make that happen, he needs some help from Ellis and Neckbone.
While Neckbone is at first hesitant to help Mud, Ellis is all in because he is so captivated by Mud’s love for Juniper. Things at home between Ellis’ mother and father (an excellent pairing of Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are dicey, and he’s possibly landed his first girlfriend. So love is on his brain and, in that twilight between boyhood and Man, Ellis is entranced by the type of storybook love Mud tells tale of. Neckbone needs more convincing to help Mud, but Mud makes Neckbone the kind of offer that most 14-year-old boys would find hard to turn down. Spit-upon hands are shook, and Ellis and Neckbone begin their adventure. I won’t spoil it for you, but it involves lots of scrap yards, meeting the mysterious old man who lives across the river from Ellis (played by the do-no-wrong Sam Shepard), relaying messages to Juniper (who’s just arrived to town) and interacting with some nefarious sorts. While this adventure is going on, the reason Mud is on this island and planning to run away with Juniper slowly comes out, and there are certain complications that unfold as a result.
It may seem like a cut-and-dry story, but Mud turns a simple tale into an excellent film. This is because Nichols is a magician. The camera work is great and the cinematography is gorgeous (Nichols properly gave his cinematographer many accolades while introducing the film). It’s exactly what I now expect from Nichols, these beautiful wide-angle shots setting the scene before we cut in to these well-framed shots that never distract from Nichol’s excellent dialogue. It’s not that the dialogue is particularly rich or witty, but there’s a natural flow and rhythm to the words. This is particularly so when it comes to the boys, who don’t sound too-clever for their age, but sound like 14-year-old boys (complete with almost every other word out of Neckbone being some variation of “shit”).
Good dialogue needs someone to deliver it, and Nichols gave himself a perfect cast. Sheridan has been given the difficult task of holding the movie together, as it’s really all about Ellis despite the title, and he does so gamely. There’s a warmth and awe buried in his performance and, when it comes time for the inevitable one-two punch of heartbreaks, Sheridan nails it. His foil on these adventures, newcomer Lofland (an Arkansas native who, at times, resembles a young River Phoenix) provides the perfect Huck Finn to Ellis’ Tom Sawyer (Nichols, who loves Mark Twain and says that Mud is “kind of like if Sam Peckinpah directed a short story by Mark Twain,” made the boy actors read, study and discuss The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). Most of the laughs of the film (and there is a surprising undercurrent of humor throughout) come courtesy of Neckbone, and it’s not that the words themselves are funny; it’s the humor in Neckbone’s reactions, played perfectly by Lofland.
The rest of the cast is perfect, from McKinnon’s sorrowful father living a life from an era gone by, to Shepard’s stoic old man (when the hell did Sam Shepard get old?), to Paulson’s weary mother. Jeff Nichol’s favorite actor, Michael Shannon, is here, this time in a secondary role as the uncle who has been raising Neckbone. It’s a small role, but it’s a different and fun one for Shannon, where he gets to play warm and amusing. It’s nice to see Michael Shannon smile. Similarly, while Witherspoon isn’t given a ton to work with, she makes the best of it, and it’s nice to see her playing this Southern role, with hints of sadness and self-destruction.
There’s also Matthew McConaughey. Derided as a one-note actor earlier in his career (or, worse yet, accused of simply playing himself in every role), McConaughey has come into his own, particularly with the recent trio of The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike and Killer Joe. This performance is where he throws his shirt into the ring (dude just can’t help taking his shirt off) and announces himself, without question or derision, as a true and proper actor. This is easily the best performance he has ever given. There are almost none of the typical McConaugheyian affectations we’ve come to expect. His Mud, a wise storyteller and a hopeless romantic, is quiet and reserved, with an inner fire that McConaughey lets come to the surface at just the right moments. I’ve always liked McConaughey, because he’s so likeable (side note: I’ve never seen a theater go as nutso over a celeb being there as this crowd was over McConaughey’s presence, and he was supremely friendly and welcoming, so good on him). But this performance here, I god damned loved it. Mud is a movie loaded with acting, yet McConaughey steals it, in a much subtler way than he’s stolen movies in the past.
With all that acting, and beautiful direction, we’re given a movie that is about all sorts of matters. There’s the obvious adventure element, and the scenes of Ellis and Neckbone out and about are great — some of the film’s best scenes, in fact, are scenes with just the two of them. The movie is also loaded with father/son themes, through several characters and relationships (I count at least five separate father/son relationships). It touches on the love that underlies these relationships, and the disappointment that’s possible because of this love. It’s here where McKinnon in particular shines. I’ve never seen him play a character quite like this, sad and determined and bitter, but still a loving father. It’s remarkable.
More than anything, this is a movie about love. It seems cheesy to just say it like that, but it’s true. The plot is driven by Mud’s love of Juniper. Ellis is a teenager just getting his feet wet in what it means to fall into and out of love, and he’s practically compelled to help Mud because of Mud’s relationship with Juniper. There’s one scene in particular, where Shannon has a conversation with his nephew’s friend about this adventure the boys are on. While it’s about them staying out of trouble, it’s also about how to cope with heartbreak. While the dialogue is delivered in a funny yet touching way, which leads to the funniest line of the whole movie, it’s also really the heart of the film. We all love and, sadly, we all have our hearts broken. But we keep at it, because of the hope of the next love.
Despite all this gushing, there is an elephant in the room, which is that there’s a current under the film that may feel misogynistic to some. There are only three female characters, Ellis’ mother, Juniper, and Ellis’ maybe-girlfriend. All three are given sparing dialogue, and each of them ultimately cause heartbreak on men in their lives for reasons which seem to come from a place of selfishness or cruelty. That isn’t to say that you can’t understand why each of them do what they do — even given their minimal dialogue, there’s enough context here, and none of the women come off as “bad.” But they do come off as catalysts for the male characters, rather than fully explored and developed characters of their own right. It’s understanding, given the film’s focus on fathers and sons, but doesn’t make it any less off-putting for some. In fact, from overheard conversations following the screening, this is a divisive element that turned off many female viewers. It’s a shame, because I love this movie, and I wish it were perfect. I understand why Nichols took this approach, but I also understand the criticism. Nevertheless, Mud is great movie, and as amped as I was to see this, I’m even more pumped for whatever Nichols has up his sleeve next.
Also, I think I’m gonna call my pops and tell him that I love him.