Mud director Jeff Nichols clearly has a touch of the Terrence Malick about him. His last film, Take Shelter, was Twister by way of Malick’s unique ability to conjure character and environment. Mud however, while maintaining that Malick inspired importance on nature, is closer in spirit to Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me, a coming of age drama that owes more than a nod to Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn stories.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is an Arkansas river rat spending his summer exploring the Mississippi with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). With all not well between his mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and father Senior (Ray McKinnon), Ellis is anxious to find a fortress of solitude. So when he and Neckbone stumble upon a boat stuck in a tree on a remote island they think they’ve struck lucky. The only problem is the boat is already occupied by fugitive Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who needs the boys’ help to get the boat out of the tree, get his girl Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) back and sail off into the sunset.
Mud is an intimate, often moving, always beautiful drama about a young boy learning to cope with the realities of life. Unlike Mud, Ellis has to come to terms with the fact that not everything is perfect. Sometimes love hurts, life isn’t fair but in spite of it all, through all those looming clouds and muddy waters there is hope.
Nichols’ film is hugely engaging, like last year’s Beasts Of The Southern Wild, it deals with big issues as seen through the eyes of someone too young to truly understand. It is a film about kids rather than for them.
Mud is a believer, an idealist, a man isolated not just on his small island but from society and the brutality of life. As such he puts his faith in anything he can with the hope it will bring him some luck. So there are nails in his shoes in the shape of a cross, wolf eyes’ stitched into the fabric of his only shirt and, more than anything, he strongly believes that love conquers all. No matter the men with guns standing between him and Juniper, if they love each other enough they will be together. Ellis likes Mud’s sense of hope, as he witnesses his family fall apart, he admires Mud for fighting for love while his father does quite the opposite and watches it die.
For Ellis love is clear, it’s powerful and worth fighting for. So much so that he all too often throws punches at boys seen hanging out with the girl he thinks is his new girlfriend. But, like the film’s title suggests, nothing is ever certain in this murky world. At one point Michael Shannon’s character turns to Ellis and tells him “You got to know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go”, as the danger mounts Ellis will begin to realise that perhaps his and Mud’s naivety was believing in the first place. Nichols highlights this with a colour pallet just off pristine. The water is brown, the greenery all too often scorched dry by the hot Arkansas heat and beneath every rock, puddle and debris strewn stretch of river lurk forces just waiting to leave a poisonous bite in your hopes and dreams.
McConaughey continues to be the renaissance man of Hollywood. Gone are the phoned in performances of his rom-com days, replaced with subtle and fascinating characters whom he is only too happy to embody, even if it means rebelling against his pin-up good looks. As Mud he dons a prosthetic tooth making his sentences whistle just a fraction. It’s a brilliant performance and one that ticks with Mud’s boundless optimism and occasional bouts of frustration. Witherspoon delivers a quiet, often ethereal performance but one that is intentionally kept on the periphery of the story. But the film belongs to Tye Sheridan. In only his second film, after Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, he is a revelation, a ball of uneasy teenage mannerisms packed into a pint-sized adult. At first he’s the strong silent type but as we get to know Ellis we learn of the achingly vulnerable boy inside. Towards the end, when his picture postcard idea of life and love begins to disappear, Sheridan comes into his own, his tearful anger perfectly capturing both Ellis’ and our frustration at how cruel life can be.
Like its Arkansas setting, Mud is often warm, vibrant, captivating but fraught with danger. Nichols and McConaughey continue to flourish with Mud proving the ultimate fertiliser for them and the young Sheridan.