Movie Review: Mud
Director: Jeff Nichols
Reviewed: 18 June 2013
Jeff Nichols's new film "Mud" exists in the same company as "Sling Blade," "Winter's Bone," and "Ulee's Gold," painfully beautiful films that seem of this world and of another entirely. With its small town setting near the border of Mississippi and Arkansas in an America rarely seen in film, its literary allusions (most notably to "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn"), and its vision of struggling to survive in America as well as young love, "Mud" shines.
Two young boys named Ellis (Tye Sheridan, most recently of "The Tree of Life") and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) roam the forests and waters of their small town with an eye for adventure. A trip out to a small island reveals a boat trapped high up in a tree from the last flood. Attempting to claim it as their own, Ellis and Neckbone encounter the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drifting man in hiding, fishing and eking out survival on the island away from society. Mud's dramatic monologues on good and evil, love and women, and his own origin captivate the fourteen year olds, drawing them into his service. Ellis lives on the river in a houseboat and hears the growing conflict between his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) about staying or moving to town, and possibly even more change. Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who searches the muddy bottom of the Mississippi river for oysters and anything salvageable while wearing a clunky, old-fasioned diving helmet. From Mud, they learn of his tale of woe, his love for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and his reason for hiding. They decide to help him in his quest for redemption.
Watching the film is akin to unlocking a series of mysteries, each more revealing than the last. There is a hopefulness in the film, especially in its painful depiction of Ellis's pursuit of May Pearl, a girl that he likes. That relationship parallels Mud's with Juniper as well as his mother and father, and even Galen's transitory one. Without drawing too many overt connections, Ellis's desire to believe Mud's story coincides with his own desire to stay naive and childish.
McConaughey's performance is brilliant, perhaps his best ever, and when considered alongside his hilarious turn in "Magic Mike" and his darkly disturbing work in "Killer Joe," he has amassed an enviable record of range and depth. Witherspoon carries a world-weary sadness in a small role, and Sam Shepherd delivers a memorable performance as neighbor Tom Blankenship. Michael Shannon is wonderful in two small but important scenes. However, the two lead performances are Sheridan and Lofland though, and they carry the movie; their friendship is never forced or inauthentic. Both handle the emotional weight of the film with their steady eyes and skinny frames. Lofland resembles a young River Phoenix in "Stand By Me."
Nichols does not just use the setting of the small town to tell the story. He imbues its rhythms and sounds into the fabric of the film: riding in the back of a pick-up truck, studying the groups of teens outside of the Dairy Queen, delivering catfish to the local restaurants, falling in love, and trying to create something out of nothing. His film evokes Terence Malick with its loving shots of nature and sun streaking through the trees, and for the second time this summer, a film with young men in the wilderness earns my highest rating ("The Kings of Summer" being the first). "Mud" is tender when it needs to be, and when it turns to impending violence, it is frightening.
"Mud" lights out for the Territory and finds its place among the best films of the year. With "Mud" and "Take Shelter" from 2011, Jeff Nichols has become one of the most vibrant auteurs of our time. That much is clear.