MUD Review

Though my opinion might be slightly biased as director Jeff Nichols is from my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas and is certainly the most prominent filmmaker to come out of here in quite some time it is also nice to see the south receive authentic representation in a film that receives wide, and mostly positive recognition. This isn't Nichols first foray into depicting the south in all its bare normality's and simplicities though as he has ventured here twice before in 2007's deadly family feud drama Shotgun Stories and 2011's Take Shelter that perfectly encapsulated the inner demons and slow unraveling of the human psyche. In his latest, Mud, Nichols has kept his location the same as he is able to so naturally create a sense of place and that is key here as our two young protagonists live on and off of the river that guides them to an island where they meet the titular character. The atmosphere and the way in which Nichols crafts his story lend an almost mythical quality to the tone. It is as if this could just have easily been a southern fable that parents told their children at night so as to keep them from wandering where they aren't supposed to go. Still, even with these vibes of a folk legend the film is able to say and do so much more than simply teach a moral lesson. I expected the slow pace, the southern setting, and the bigger implications the story might make other than what is on the surface, but what continues to surprise is the renaissance of a period that Matthew McConaughey is having in his career at the moment. All of the performances here are strong and Nichols has rounded up a solid cast, especially in his two young stars, but it is McConaughey's turn as the title character that will have you thinking about the film long after the credits roll and what he stood for, what he wanted from life, and most inconspicuously, who he really was.

Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and Ellis (Tye Sheridan) in Mud.
Set on the banks of the Mississippi river, the story focuses on Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and his ever growing sense of deflation in his family unit. His mother (Sarah Paulson) inherited their lake house from her father and she has lived there her entire life and she is ready for change. Ellis's father (Ray McKinnon) on the other hand makes his living off the fish that swim in the river and the last thing he wants is to be taken away from his source of income and the life he has so comfortably become accustomed to. Ellis doesn't have much of a desire to move into town either as he makes a little money by helping his father deliver the fish and hangs out with his best friend Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) the rest of the time as they travel down the river and scavenge for things that might make their adventures all the more interesting. As bland and tired as the argument might sound it is also nice to see a depiction of teenage boys not completely taken in by the norm of video games, their phones, and the almighty goal of trying to have sex at all to young an age. Those thoughts and necessities don't even enter the mind of these characters but instead they create their own levels of accomplishment, their goals, and their shaken view on love instead of lust as the things that get them through the day. It is when they hear of a wrecked boat on an island not too far from where they live that they go to investigate and make it their own only to discover it is already occupied by a drifter who calls himself Mud (McConaughey). The boys get to know the man, and make a deal with him so that if they help him get food that he will leave them the boat when he departs this part of the country. Neckbone is all in for what he can get out of the deal, but Ellis sees more reason to help Mud for he isn't just running from something, but he is running toward what his parents have come to take for granted. Mud gives Ellis reason to believe in what he so desperately needs to remain intact.

From the outset of the film it is evident where we are in the world and how things tend to work in the rural community that seemingly exists around the Piggly Wiggly. While Nichols takes his time setting up each of the characters and their certain special attributes this deliberate pace is also used to really infuse the film with a sense of childhood wonderment that comes through in the performances of Sheridan and Lofland. As Neckbone, Lofland is the comic relief, the one who makes the written dialogue sound like it was improvised while he puts emphasis on his favorite curse words and has a best friend relationship with his caretaker uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), that stands to show why he is so independent and why he feels no sense of urgency towards the tender emotion of love that Ellis finds so compelling. As Ellis, Sheridan takes note from the improvised style of filmmaking he learned from Terrence Malick and applies it to the naturalistic way in which he approaches each and every scenario his character comes into contact with, the fact Sheridan is actually only sixteen makes it likely he doesn't even realize what he's doing and in turn creates that authentic performance that goes so well with the tone Nichols brings to all of his films. This need to know that love actually exists, that there is something to really believe in is what drives Ellis to want to help Mud and in turn he helps Mud to realize why he's been stuck for so long and what he has to do to face the reality of his small world. If there is any kind of lesson that Nichols is trying to teach or that Ellis is forced to learn it is that sooner or later you have to come to terms with the reality of your life and accept that it might not always be what your original aspirations had in mind. Mud has to deal with this in the form of his believed true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who no matter what kind of trouble comes into play can always rely on the presence of the McConaughey's walking charlatan.

Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) is forced to contemplate her future in director Jeff Nichols latest.
It is hard to discuss the full extent of the story without giving too much away, but there is not necessarily too much to say about Witherspoon's character or role as it is fairly small, with the role she inhabits in Mud's world being more important than the actual person. It is easy to see why Witherspoon was cast as her public persona has always placed her as a southern sweetheart, a little blonde cherub if you will and that is how she needs to be seen past her white trash make-up and clothes here so that we may understand why Mud has such a fascination with her. Mud himself, as played by McConaughey is a charming swindler, someone who it is easy to imagine is a con artist of some sorts and a phony that is tricking his young companions into helping him for all the wrong reasons. It is through Nichols creative and rich dialogue that is spewed through the actors southern drawl that pulls us in and intrigues us as it does Neckbone and Ellis. That same dialogue that gives Neckbone more than just an archetypal role and the film a better sense of place than most it is these words that create the calming feeling that washes over the film when McConaughey comes on screen while never letting us forget the tension that resides just below his surface. Though I believe Mud is a truly romantic character, a man who fell for the wrong person and let his life be guided by an unflattering light that caused him more heartache than grief than he might have ever felt if he'd just let it go in the beginning there is still a sense of mystery around the man, a swirling charisma that McConaughey brings to the role with his strong sense of convictions that come to be brought back to earth by what he learns from the boys who he tries to teach so much to. Mud is a quiet epic that comes to a thrilling conclusion that somewhat feels out of place, but is also perfectly built to sustain the kind of action it delivers. The story is weaved through a number of facets that all come together with a sense of expertise in the end. The performances all stand as top notch and the music and direction all assist in making the story feel as down to earth and dirty as the name and appearance of the titular character might imply.