Directed by: Jeff Nichols.
Written by: Jeff Nichols.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey (Mud), Reese Witherspoon (Juniper), Tye Sheridan (Ellis), Jacob Lofland (Neckbone), Sarah Paulson (Mary Lee), Ray McKinnon (Senior), Sam Shepard (Tom Blankenship), Michael Shannon (Galen), Paul Sparks (Carver), Joe Don Baker (King), Johnny Cheek (Kyle), Bonnie Sturdivant (May Pearl), Stuart Greer (Miller), Clayton Carson (Pryor).
In just three films, Jeff Nichols has established himself as one of the most interesting directors working today. He specializes in films set in the areas of the Southern U.S.A. that rarely have movies made about them – and even more rarely have respectful movies made about them. While his movies all have a certain degree of realism to them – there is something a little bit more in each of them. In his wonderful, little seen debut, Shotgun Stories, set in his native Arkansas, he tells the story of two warring sets of brothers – the ones who were abandoned by the father to raise the others – but when you name one set of brothers “Son, Boy and Kid” you know you are looking at an allegory. His even better follow-up, Take Shelter, was a paranoid thriller set in Ohio, with Michael Shannon as a regular guy convinces the storm to end all storms is coming. That film would have made Hitchcock proud, and is a film that grows in my mind even now, two years later. His latest film is Mud – which is a coming of age story that also has elements of a fairy tale at times. Once again, Nichols has made a wonderful film.
The film stars newcomers Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as the inventively named Neckbone, who live on the river in a small Arkansas town. Ellis’ father is a fisherman, and Neckbone lives with his uncle, who collects clams from the river bottom. They know their way of life is ending – as soon as they leave, river authority will tear down their houseboats – but for the boys, they love this place. Neckbone has heard from his uncle that on a small island on the river there is a boat caught in a tree. And when you’re a 13 or 14 year old boy, there are few things cooler than a boat in a tree. So off they head to the island – and they do in fact discover the boat. But they also discover a man living there. He calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and takes offense when Neckbone calls him a bum –“Call me a hobo, because they work for their money. Or call me homeless, because right now, that’s true. But you call me a bum again, and I’ll teach you the respect your daddy never did” he tells him. Mud has a gun, but he’s also fairly nice to the boys. He says he’ll be there for only a few days – he just has to wait for someone to meet him. And if the boys will help him out for some food, that would be appreciated. While most adults wouldn’t trust someone living on a small island, who packs a pistol, when you’re 13, you want to trust – want to believe. Especially when Mud tells Ellis he’s waiting for his girlfriend who he is madly in love with. Ellis’ parents are on the verge of divorce, and his own crush is out of his league – so he needs a love story to believe in.
Mud makes a good alternative to all the blockbusters out right now. We’re only three weeks into blockbuster season, and while I mildly enjoyed Iron Man 3, didn’t hate (but didn’t really like) The Great Gatsby, and was hugely entertained by Star Trek: Into Darkness, I feel myself already tiring of the blockbuster aesthetic of non-stop action, rapid fire editing and style over substance. A movie like Mud is the opposite of that – some will complain that the film is too slow and “nothing happens in it”, but that’s not true at all. Mud is a movie that takes it’s time – it lets its characters breathe, and become more than just pawns for Nichols to move around to simply advance a lame plot. You get to know these people, and care for them. There are no characters here that are simply here for convenience’s sake – even characters with little screen time – like Sam Shepherd’s grumpy old man across the river, or Ellis’ worn out mother, and especially Nichols’ favorite Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle – who cares about his nephew, and knows enough to know he isn’t particularly suited to raise him, but he doesn’t have a choice. Ray McKinnon also leaves a large impression as Ellis’ father, who doesn’t like what is happening to him, but is powerless to stop them. Even when the movie introduces the bad guys – guys hunting down Mud – they are slightly more than generic bag men.
But the best performances are by the four major characters. After years of coasting on his easy Southern charm in one lazy romantic comedy after another, McConaughey has established himself as a more talented actor than I ever imagined – from his movie star performance in The Lincoln Lawyer, to his brilliant, slightly more than a cameo in Richard Linklater’s Bernie, to Soderbergh’s Magic Mike, which turns McConaughey’s persona on its head, to William Friedkin’s chilling Killer Joe to Lee Daniels’ over the top The Paperboy, and now this film, where he plays a man blinded by love, up to his eyeballs in trouble, who turns out to be more complex than we first thought, McConaughey is on a roll. If this isn’t quite his best performance in this group, it’s close. Another movie star known for coasting through romantic comedies, Reese Witherspoon, is always quite good as the object of his affection – a woman who knows the damage she causes, but still cannot stop herself for causing it. And from newcomers Sheridan and Lofland, Nichols gets a pair of the best children’s performance in recent memory. The two perfectly capture the confusing time right on the cusp of being a teenager – not quite there yet, but older than a child. They half grasp what is going on, and want to do the right thing – and think they are.
Mud may be a touch too long, and perhaps Nichols should have found a slightly better way to end the film – he has a few too many storylines crashing together at once at the end. But overall, Mud is another wonderful film by one of the best new filmmakers around. Nichols is just getting started, and he’s already made three great films. Some directors go their entire career and don’t do that.