Mud (2012) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA rated: PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, thematic elements, language and smoking
Running time: 130 min.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Bonnie Sturdivant
Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Writer-director Jeff Nichols continues to impress with his character-driven pieces, and, coming after the acclaimed Take Shelter, Mud is sure to put his name even higher on many a film buff's list of directors to follow. At its core, it's a coming-of-age-story revolving around a 14-year-old named Ellis (Sheridan, Tree of Life) and his best friend, Neckbone (Lofland), whose adventures around their rural Arkansas town lead them to travel in their small boat to a deserted island in the Mississippi River, where they become fascinated by a larger, seemingly abandoned boat they see stuck up in a tree. They claim it as their own, but find there is already someone living there, and they end up running into him on the return home.
The man's name is Mud (McConaughey, Fool's Gold), a vagabond on the lam from cops and bounty hunters alike for a past misdeed, who is hiding out in the location hoping to make contact with a lost love named Juniper (Witherspoon, This Means War). The boys feel for Mud's plight, particularly in Mud's romantic despair (something the young boy is coming to feel for in his own life) and vow to help him get food, find Juniper, and (hopefully) escape from those seeking to do him in. Unfortunately, the more closer they are to Mud, the more in danger they become.
Nichols' script works on multiple levels, and while there are contrivances to the story that eventually emerge, the director does a fine job in developing a mythical quality to Mud's tale that allows for a liberal interpretation of the events, especially from a young boy's perspective that makes his adventures seem like a tall tale. Ellis looks at Mud as a sort of role model for his romantic pursuits, willing to fight for the girl he loves dearly, unlike his father (McKinnon, The Missing), whose marriage with Ellis's mother (Paulson, Game Change) is coming to an end. Meanwhile, Neckbone's uncle (Shannon, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead) is a love-em-and-leave-em sort who recommends reading for tips on how to bag the opposite sex successfully, though no word on how to successfully maintain a relationship beyond just a one-time fling. Dad says not to trust love, Mud is so driven by love, he's blind to whatever Juniper does, while for Galen, it doesn't even seem to come into the equation.
The simple story works, not only to Nichols' understanding of his characters and ability to tell a proper story, but also in the fine casting all around, and especially Sheridan as Ellis, who gives what is the most nuanced portrayal among them all, avoiding the pitfalls of the too-cute movie kid personality that frequently inhabits films surrounding rambunctious minors. Lofland feels just right in support, though the burden isn't placed as much on his characterization. The ever-charismatic McConaughey continues on the path to cinematic redemption by avoiding vanity (he wears fake chipped, crooked teeth to not seem as glamorous), and his relationship with the lads feels effortless without seeming cloying or forced. Reese Witherspoon does well fleshing out a smaller, less defined supporting role as Juniper.
Nichols' feel for time and place is authentic, having grown up in Little Rock, Arkansas; he knows these people and their outlook on life through and through. Nichols sites the influence on Mark Twain on his works, and that certainly shines through loud and clear in Mud, which some may also see a connection to with Stand by Me as a modern coming-of-age tale for boys. The pacing of the film captures the easygoing tempo of the area it's set in (Dewitt, Arkansas), which may make less patient viewers anxious as the small-scale tale creeps beyond the two-hour mark. Although the film has thriller elements (akin to Nichols' prior work, Take Shelter), which comes to fruition in his climax, it's not a film about Mud himself so much as about the influence a young boy's experiences have in the kind of man he will eventually turn out to be. One gathers that for the short duration of his experience with the man named Mud, it will be a factor in his outlook for the rest of his life.
With the possible exception of a rather weak (or, I should say, conventional, at least as compared to the rest of this fine film) climax and epilogue, Mud remains a top-quality film full of characters we can believe in, even when the situations threaten to cross over into disbelief. In the end, it's about that period in an impressionable adolescent's life when they tread the line with wanting to believe in their role models and the sobering realization that those adults that guide you all have their own flaws and foibles, and mistakes are something you have to live with.
©2013 Vince Leo