Article By: Dan Clark
Writer-Director Jeff Nichols’s latest film Mud is a coming of age tale that combines the country brashness of Huck Finn with the grand adventure of Stand By Me, and adds the ability to capture a rustic subculture similar to Beasts of the Southern Wild. All these different elements come together to tell a deeply personal tale of the complexities of life, love, and the bitter sweetness of growing old. This modern fable brings you deep into the makings of its character to provide a unique prospective to this naturalistic world. Nearly every performance has an impeccable sense of authenticity. Much of the story rest on the shoulders of the film’s two young leads, and they carry that weight with a sheer will far beyond their years. This makes for a genuinely heartwarming tale that does not shy away from its darker side.
Nichols places the film in his own home state of Arkansas, and his personal experiences clearly paid dividends. He brandishes a beautiful portrait of these river filled landscapes that seemingly go on forever. The story revolves around two teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who set out to an island on the Mississippi River to look for a boat that has been mysteriously logged up in a tree. They soon discover someone has actually been living in this boat turned tree house. The person taking up residence goes by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and with one quick look at him you can understand where he got that name. Mud requires the help of these boys and promises to repay them with his boat. The boys agree and begin to form a bond with Mud, but soon discover there may be more to the story of Mud than they first realized.
People forget just how great of an actor Matthew McConaughey can be. He tends to automatically be associated as the aloof goof of romantic comedies. Last year with his work in Killer Joe, Magic Mike, and Bernie ,he was able to shed much of that stigma. His performance here is only further proof of his craftsmanship. Mud is a tangent storyteller who answers nearly every question with an elongated tale full of local colloquialisms. McConaughey gives the character this perfect soft edged temperament. On the surface he has a surprisingly welcoming persona that is clearly covering up a rougher interior. All of his workings make him an enigmatic figure full of intrigue.
Though McConaughey is the biggest star and the film is titled after his character, he is not the main
protagonist of this film. That honor goes to rising star Tye Sheridan. Sheridan gives what may be the film’s best performance. He is a complete natural in the way he portrays his multifarious character. Nichols challenges Sheridan by giving him a character that is fully faceted with adult emotions. He may be wise beyond his years, yet he still maintains a childlike wonderment full of romantic ideals. Ellis is consistently being berated with the harsh realities of life. His parents are in the midst of a divorce, which could lead to losing the one place he has called home. Mud evolves into the one person he can hang his idealistic hopes onto. Sheridan’s young age has no hindrance on his maturity as an actor. His emotions are tossed into a continuous tizzy as the world around him begins to crumble. Whatever the story requires of Sheridan’s he is more than willing to deliver.
Mud’s narrative is layered with a number of different facets and subplots. Nichols deliberately slows down the pacing for much for the film. He divvies out story bits and distributes them in a rather lackadaisical fashion. While it helps support the overall static atmosphere, it does leave you sitting and waiting for something to happen for a good bit a time. With so much to dissect it is hard to mind all this time, nevertheless there are points were you are ready to move on.
Overall the story is quite fascinating. Nichols scribes one robust script drenched in substance. The scope is surprisingly large with everything it encompasses. In a way Mud’s story alone would be enough to service an entire film. When you add Ellis’s story it broadens things even further. Still, with such an array of story bits it is able to maintain an unremitting intimacy, because every story element has a distinct purpose. Ellis’s relationship with his parents in many other films would just have been a run of the mill subplot. Instead, here it forces Ellis to deal with the repercussions of their withering relationship. With everything this story entails it could have easily fell victim to overdone melodrama. Luckily, that was never the case as every emotional payoff was well-earned.
Summer movie season is filled with car chases, explosions, and superhero heroics. Sometimes it is freeing to take a step back and appreciate the smaller things. Mud is ideal counterprograming for a season full of high-profile blockbusters. Those looking for something different will be pleased with this quaint adventure jam-packed with purpose. Don’t’ be surprised if that impact only grows as the years grow older.