Mud (2013)

5 May


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Jeff Nichols is undoubtedly one of the best modern filmmakers of our time. He obviously cares deeply for film and filmmaking, which was clear evidence in 2008’s “Shotgun Stories” and 2011’s “Take Shelter” (both of which are different yet excellent films), and doesn’t always go for the easy way out, yet finds new ways to satisfy audiences. So when I found out that his third feature, “Mud,” was aimed for more mainstream appeal, I was wondering if he would stoop to the new low that David Gordon Green (another visionary filmmaker who began in the indie circuit) took with his stoner comedies. And for the record, I know Green’s latest films have their audiences, and maybe they were the kind of films he wanted to make all along. Maybe “Mud” was the kind of film that Nichols wanted to make while he was making his other films to give himself an image in order to do so; but either way there is to look at it, his move into the mainstream is welcome with this film.

I love this film. This might be the kind of movie that Nichols wanted to make for a long time, but this is also the kind of movie that I would love to make. It’s a coming-of-age story in a nontraditional sense, using elements of adventure to tell the story of two young boys learning some important life lessons. Another such film is 1986’s “Stand by Me,” which was one of my main influences to become a film critic and a filmmaker. There’s just something so engaging about a coming-of-age adventure such as this.

“Mud” takes place in the Arkansas Delta, near the White and Mississippi rivers, giving the film its great deal of Southern grittiness. Our main characters are two 14-year-old boys—Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland)—who spend their days riding a dirt bike and using a skiff to explore the Mississippi. They come across an island in which a boat is lodged high up in a tree, due to a flood. But they find that the boat is inhabited by a ragged-looking man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey).

Mud may be homeless, hiding out on the island, and he does carry a gun for “protection,” but he comes off as unthreatening to the boys, telling them tales of superstition (nails in the shape of crosses in his boot-heels, his white shirt representing “good luck,” his snake tattoo representing “bad luck,” etc.) and about his love who is supposedly coming to meet him so they can escape together. Ellis and Neckbone decide to help him out, bringing him food and running a few errands for Mud in town, which includes finding his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and bringing her messages from him.

The main reason Ellis wants to help Mud and Juniper get back together is because he still wants to believe that true love still exists, despite the upcoming divorce his parents will go through. He wants something to believe in, and so he does what he can to make sure it follows through. The fact that Mud killed a man to protect Juniper doesn’t decrease his intrigue; if anything, it increases it.

Mud’s devotion to Juniper also mirrors that of Ellis’ infatuation with an older girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sterdivant). After Ellis defends her honor by punching out a high-school senior, she lets him take her out on a date, which doesn’t lead to what he would hope for. Without giving too much away, his disappointment to a certain reveal about her is heartbreaking, because I think we all went through something like that in our young lives. And it does fit into the adult-romance that Mud and Juniper should have while there’s a high chance that things aren’t exactly what they should be.

This new look upon reality, which Ellis is starting to realize, is what makes “Mud” an effective drama, as well as an adventure story. His interaction with Mud increases his self-esteem and the pride he feels in what he feels he should do. He also learns some harsh truths that Mud learned the hard way, giving this character much room to grow. By the end of the story, Ellis has learned some important things about life (which is the case for any coming-of-age tale), while Neckbone is more or less the same adventurous boy he was at the beginning of the story, and so that leaves an interesting contrast between the two boys. This didn’t necessarily have to be a coming-of-age tale involving two boys; just one is enough, while the other is suitable for the “adventure” element.

Speaking of which, things get even more dangerous when the boys encounter a nasty bounty hunter (Stuart Greer) who is seeking vengeance against Mud (the man Mud killed turned out to be his brother) along with a posse led by his father (Joe Don Baker). They keep close watch on Juniper, believing that she’ll lead them to him, and so Ellis and Neckbone must plan a sneaky way to get her back to Mud.

Matthew McConaughey is receiving well-deserved praise for his strong, memorable portrayal of a man who has risked (and is still risking) everything for who he believes is his soulmate and truly believes he’ll figure something out with each misstep. He’s truly brilliant here. But the real stars of “Mud” are the two excellent young actors playing Ellis and Neckbone. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are already labeled as resembling Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in their performances, and deservedly so (this is a Mark Twain type of story). Sheridan’s Ellis is more enlightened and thoughtful while Lofland’s Neckbone is more outgoing and defiant (and he also provides some funny moments as well). The blend of these two is excellent and is played in an entirely credible way.

This is more of the boys’ story as they are the main focus, though the adult characters (aside from Mud) play pivotal roles in their tale. Reese Witherspoon’s role of Juniper is more complicated than just being a “soulmate” and there manages to be more complexity implied than actually stated; Sarah Paulsen and Ray McKinnon are convincing as Ellis’ squabbling parents who each try to give Ellis further outlook about growing up; the bounty hunters, led by Joe Don Baker and Stuart Greer, are given a specific purpose of vengeance for the man Mud killed; and we also get Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’ neighbor who has a past connection with Mud.

Oh, and there’s also Neckbone’s uncle and guardian, played by Michael Shannon (a regular for Jeff Nichols’ films). He’s pretty much an overgrown teenager who slacks off and plays “Help Me Rhonda” (by The Beach Boys) during sex with random women. And…that’s about it. Aside from one little talk to Ellis about how Neckbone looks up to him, he really serves no purpose to the story. I think if you remove his scenes in the editing room, you wouldn’t miss anything. But I’ll let it slide because he is quite solid in the role, and frankly it is good to see him in a Jeff Nichols film.

The look and feel of the Arkansas Delta is captured perfectly. As someone who has spent a majority of his life so far in an Arkansan small town, a sense of familiarity overcame me. The small town; the boondocks; the landscapes. I felt like I wasn’t too far from home. And for anybody, with the way the film captures this particular essence, those who live in large cities are most likely to notice the vividness of atmosphere.

“Mud” is a wonderful film, and yet another winner in Jeff Nichols’ great résumé. This is further proof that Jeff Nichols is one of the most impressive filmmakers of our time. I love his films, and I eagerly await his next project.

2 Responses to “Mud (2013)”

  1. jennypugh May 5, 2013 at 5:49 pm #

    I’m really looking forward to watching Mud so it’s great to see a 4 star review 🙂


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