Editor’s Notes: Mud opened in limited release yesterday, April 26th, 2013.
Six years ago, Jeff Nichols first, feature-length film, Shotgun Stories, an Arkansas-based tale centered on feuding half-brothers, marked him as one of the most promising talents behind the camera of his generation. Shotgun Stories starred a then lightly used Michael Shannon in the lead role. An obvious rapport and affinity between writer-director and star led to their second film together, Take Shelter, a compelling character study wrapped around a modern-day retelling of Noah and the Biblical Flood, four years later. Critical acclaim and accolades justifiably followed for Nichols’ writing and direction and Shannon’s finely wrought turn in the lead role. Something of a muse for Nichols, Shannon’s back for Nichol’s third film, Mud, a Mark Twain-inspired, Southern pulp-thriller, but only in a supporting role this time. Nichols turned to Matthew McConaughey to take the title role, an enigmatic fugitive wanted for the murder of another man.
Something of a muse for Nichols, Shannon’s back for Nichol’s third film, Mud, a Mark Twain-inspired, Southern pulp-thriller, but only in a supporting role this time.
McConaughey’s title character, however, isn’t the protagonist in Mud. Nichols structures Mud as a coming-of-age tale centered on Ellis (Tye Sheridan), an Arkansas teenager forced to face the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the loss of his childhood home, a houseboat on the Mississippi, Ellis escapes with his best friend, Nick (Jacob Lofland), a.k.a. Neckbone, on the latter’s dirt-bike or his father’s motorboat. Parentless, Nick lives with his uncle, Galen (Shannon), a pearl diver, while Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon), ekes out a living as a fisherman. Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson), however, wants to leave the river (and the life it represents) behind and move into the nearby town, a decision Ellis doesn’t support and his father rejects. For Ellis’ father, moving away from the river would challenge his masculinity by highlighting his inability to adequately provide for his family.
Together they ride up and down the river, more out of boredom than because they have s specific goal in mind. An island proves too inviting for them to resist, however, and there they discover a boat suspended in the trees – the apparent result of a flood – and later, the boat’s occupant, Mud. At first wary, Ellis and, to a lesser extent, Nick, become entranced with Mud’s predicament (he’s obviously on the run from the law) and the reason why he’s remained on the island – a woman (because it’s always about a woman). That woman, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), gives Ellis all the rationale he needs to side with Mud as his ally. To the naïve Ellis, Juniper represents a romantic ideal, but to Mud, she’s poisonous, the bad woman/femme fatale who consistently trips him up (or worse).
Even as Ellis becomes inextricably intertwined in Mud and Juniper’s story, Nichols adds a subplot involving May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a teenage girl and the object of Ellis’ naïve romantic intentions. She’s there to offer a youthful parallel to the romantic disappointments that await Ellis – his parents’ disintegrating marriage and Mud’s lifelong infatuation with Juniper. On the evidence of Mud, it seems Nichols has little faith in romantic love, in or out of marriage, but that aside, it’s the awkward, clumsy combination of an overly familiar coming-of-age story with pulp-thriller conventions that ultimately leads to an unsatisfying result, made all the worse by an ending that resolves one too many story threads where ambiguity would have been better.
…an overly familiar coming-of-age story with pulp-thriller conventions that ultimately leads to an unsatisfying result, made all the worse by an ending that resolves one too many story threads where ambiguity would have been better.
Mud isn’t helped by deliberate, languid pacing that only picks up during the comparatively frenetic finale. Presumably, it’s meant to evoke the lazy, unfocused days of summer and amorphous river life, but it often feels self-indulgent (because it is). Nichols compounds the problem by turning Mud into a virtual action-hero by the end of the film, conveniently assisted by an old friend and mentor, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), a man with not just military training, but sniper training too, as they take on the men sent to kill Mud. Despite those avoidable missteps, however, Nichols deserves credit for ably selecting his cast, from the reliably charismatic McConaughey and Shannon to a supporting cast filled with experienced actors and first-timer Tye Sheridan, the emotional center of the film.
[notification type=”star”]70/100 ~ GOOD. Mud isn’t helped by deliberate, languid pacing that only picks up during the comparatively frenetic finale. Presumably, it’s meant to evoke the lazy, unfocused days of summer and amorphous river life, but it often feels self-indulgent (because it is).[/notification]