The new movie “Mud” is a boys’ adventure story in the same mold as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and cinematic coming-of-age quest stories, such as the great film “Stand By Me.”
Directed by Arkansas native Jeff Nichols, the film tells the story of two 14-year-old boys who befriend an outlaw living in a boat on an island off the Mississippi River; because Nichols has a gift for striking, memorable images, the boat is lodged high into a tree, and the boys see it as a treehouse and hideaway. Instead, they find themselves running errands for the man who lives there, who goes by the nickname Mud, and bringing him food and other supplies. Mud (Matthew McConaughey, continuing his career renaissance with another eye-opening role) explains that he is waiting for his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and that he recently killed the man she was involved with, because he was abusing her.
The boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), both come from troubled homes, which might explain why they gravitate toward this mysterious older man: Ellis’ parents are breaking up and Neckbone lives with his uncle and his little memory of his parents. Another crucial character is a weathered old man named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) who lives in the river house across from Ellis’, and is one of the few people Mud trusts. We are informed that he was once a sniper, and you can bet that this is the sort of movie where he’ll have the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
What makes “Mud” immediately compelling is its sense of place. Nichols knows this territory well. He understands the people who live there, and the appeal, as well as the challenge, of living in a rural community where earning a decent living is becoming harder and harder. Ellis loves his house on the river, and the beauty and sense of freedom it offers; when faced with the prospect of moving into town, he yells, “I ain’t no townie!” This is a corner of America that has seen some hard times, and Nichols portrays his characters with the compassion and complexity they deserve; “Mud” might be a fable, but it always feels real.
For most people, the name Jeff Nichols probably doesn’t ring any bells. But Nichols is fast emerging as one of the most distinctive and fearless young directors. His filmography thus far suggests that he’s interested in grand and mythic storytelling — in telling age-old, almost Biblical tales, transplanted to the present day. His 2007 film “Shotgun Stories” is about a blood-feud between families in southeast Arkansas; his 2011 film “Take Shelter” is about a young father plagued by a series of apocalyptic visions. Like “Shotgun Stories,” “Mud” is partly about the toll vengeance takes on a family and a community. But it’s also about the relationships between fathers and sons, and men and women. So far, Nichols career is similar to the early work of David Gordon Green, who helmed elegaic, coming-of-age films set in the Deep South before going off to make Hollywood films such as “Pineapple Express” and “Your Highness.” “Mud” reminded me a lot of Green’s 2004 film “Undertow,” about two brothers who flee their rural Georgia home after their uncle kills their father.
“Mud” builds to a satisfyingly violent conclusion, much like a western. A modern-day posse has arrived in town, with the goal of tracking down Mud and killing him; there is a chilling, fascinating scene where the father of the man Mud killed (Joe Don Baker, fantastic in a small role) brings his team together, has them kneel on the floor of a dingy hotel room and pray for the death of Mud. These are not nice people, and the film ultimately finds them at the home of Ellis SPOILER ALERT! DO NOT READ ANY FURTHER IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS!, shooting at anything that moves.
“Mud” is an insightful film, perceptive about heartbreak and parenthood and the often violent passions that drive men to do bad and misguided things. Where the film falters a bit is in its portrayal of women; at first, I thought “Mud” was providing a subtle critique of the way men blame women for the problems in their lives, but by the end of the film I wasn’t so sure. Certainly Juniper and the high school girl that Ellis has a crush on are depicted as fickle, selfish people, callously inflicting pain on the men and boys foolish enough to love them.
I also wondered whether, at 130 minutes long, “Mud” overreaches — if it would have been a better film if it was a little leaner, a little more spare. I also wondered whether Nichols needed his coda, which shows Mud and Tom Blankenship floating downriver in the restored boat. Is this the sort of story, I wondered, that needs a conventional resolution? Would it have been better to leave the men’s fates a mystery? Perhaps. But that final shot, of a boat cruising toward the open water, the horizon limitless and vast, really is quite something.
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