Director: Jeff Nichols
Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Running Time: 130 minutes
Much like the water/soil mixture of the same name, Mud, Jeff Nichols’ latest film, is a mixture of a number of elements. This is part “coming of age”, part love story and part mystery/thriller. While sometimes films fail when mixing so many themes together, that is not the case here. With Mud, all ideas are expertly interwoven in a film that is as American as it gets.
Set deep along the Mississippi River in rural Arkansas, Mud tells the tale of two 14-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who together share a wild adventurous spirit. They ride dirtbikes and regularly sneak off on afternoon boat trips to a hidden island down the river. One day, they notice a boat in a tree on this island. While exploring what they believe to be their new treehouse, they discover that someone is actually living there. Shortly thereafter, they meet this inhabitant, a man who only goes by “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey).
It turns out that Mud is on this secluded island for a reason — he’s on the run from the law. The fact that he is a wanted fugitive doesn’t deter the boys from developing an unlikely friendship with him. As Mud tells them about his long-lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the boys make an oath to help him find his lady and ride off to the sunset.
There are other factors at play as well. Ellis is feeling distant from his soon-to-be-separated parents (played by the fantastic Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson), and surely this is part of the reason why he is so drawn to Mud. Ellis also has a love interest of his own — Maypearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) — with two first names, just like his mother. No matter that she is a few years older than him; Ellis is the type of feller who isn’t afraid to ask her to be his girlfriend after just one date.
The comradery between Ellis and Neckbone is tremendous. These two young boys really do feel like they are best friends, and both are expertly portrayed by relative newcomers to the acting biz (Sheridan was in The Tree of Life, this is Lofland’s first film). Matthew McConaughey also takes an exceptional turn as the multi-layered Mud. After several excellent Southern-fried roles in the last few years (including Killer Joe and Bernie), this manages to stand out as his best work. The supporting cast here is terrific as well. Reese Witherspoon is a surprisingly good fit as the damaged and confused Juniper, Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson make for a strong pairing as Ellis’ disgruntled parents, and Sam Shepard has a memorable appearance as the grizzled old vet who lives across the river. Even Nichols favorite, Michael Shannon, has a small role as Neckbone’s uncle/guardian.
Mud is very much an enjoyable film, but it does suffer from two notable flaws. One, it runs a little long. The film’s pacing is slow and methodical, which isn’t a problem in itself, but certain subplots and minor characters could have been reduced or even omitted with minimal loss. Two, the explosive final act feels a bit out of place after the slow burn drama leading up to that point. While exciting, the transition to this action setpiece is jarring.
Regardless, Jeff Nichols has delivered another engaging film, one that especially nails its Southern setting. Everyone involved feels like a real Southerner — even McConaughey is touched up to look more rugged — and it’s hard not to get attached to most of these characters. This is a film that makes us feel like teenagers again, and through their eyes, it’s not hard to empathize with ol’ Mud.