It all starts with a beautifully surreal image: a decrepit boat resting comfortably in the branches of a tree. The young boys who find it want to use it, make it their own. But on this particular river island in Arkansas, they are not alone. It’s not long before they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey, sporting a large snake tattoo and a chipped front tooth a la Jim Carrey in “Dumb & Dumber“), who’s not only the namesake of Jeff Nichols‘ brilliantly constructed, emotionally satisfying genre deconstruction, but also the film’s hero and anti-hero.
Once that boat is in play, the film, a sort-of Dickensian tale about two boys who meet a murderer and decide to help him escape, is off to the races, never relenting for a moment. Even its many quiet, thoughtful moments serve to enhance not only the more thrilling aspects of “Mud” but also (thankfully) all the wonderful, carefully observed character work. Nichols, who seems to love placing grand, near-mythological stories in his much smaller, Southern milieu, proves to be patient with his 130-minute run time. But patience, in this case, is not a euphemism for bloated or slow. Every scene, moment and shot of “Mud” is spot-on, necessary, and adds to the whole, making for a satisfying film experience that will please many a varied film-goer’s taste.
Do you like crime stories? How about romances? Coming of age tales? Are you the kind of person who prefers a cinema of logic, grace, emotion and truth? Perhaps chase movies are your thing, or maybe you just want to see McConaughey with his shirt off? If you just nodded your head yes to all or one of those, this film should satisfy. If you don’t typically like any of that noise (and if so, dude, better check your pulse) well, shit, “Mud” very well may still surprise you.
McConaughey’s performance, even when he’s wearing a shirt (one of “two things that protect him,” he says throughout the film), is nothing short of magnificent. His natural charisma, bravado and comfort in front of the camera is used so skillfully that if he gets a much-deserved Oscar nomination for his work here (make it happen, Academy!), it would almost be a shame that Nichols wouldn’t be able to share it with him. The writer/director reveals himself to be as intelligent a filmmaker as he is naturally talented, deftly subverting not only audience expectations, but more so those of the two true lead actors in “Mud.”
As great as McConaughey is, he’d be lost without the two highly impressive, naturalistic performances he gets to play off of. Tye Sheridan (from “Tree of Life” and the upcoming David Gordon Green film, “Joe,” which so far in a brief career makes him three for three in working with terrific filmmakers) and his co-star Jacob Lofland (in his film acting debut) transcend the child actor ghetto (saying they’re good for being kid actors is wildly understating it). Like “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” the film takes on their youthful perspective, so it’s key that they deliver the truth, which they do seemingly with as much ease as their more famous and experienced co-star. These are not the types of stock, frustratingly played-out child characters seen in most American cinema, be it indie or mainstream. Sheridan’s Ellis and Lofland’s Neckbone are presented with the kind of complexity rarely seen today in any media. They’re smart and naive, capable of taking care of themselves but also understandably scared when the shit hits the fan. Also, they add some much-needed and totally earned levity in a potentially dour story. One of this writer’s favorite dialogue exchanges — always appropriately terse and direct — between the two kicks off when Neckbone inquires about a girl who Ellis is ostensibly dating: “Did you grab her tits?”… “Yeah”… “That’s great man.”
The rest of the cast — Reese Witherspoon (I didn’t even realize I missed her until this film) as Mud’s would-be girlfriend; the always brilliant Michael Shannon, in his third collaboration with Nichols, as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian; Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ on-the-outs parents, and Sam Shepard as a mysterious neighbor who may or may not be more than he seems — is up to the challenge, elevating Nichols’ strong script and even better direction to make this one of the best films of a still young cinematic year.
Is “Mud” the kind of revisionist genre piece that Quentin Tarantino or Nicolas Winding Refn would make? No, it is not. Nichols is after a more emotionally satisfying, less overtly stylish (read: cool) experience. He values that we care about his characters first and foremost, so when the action and other, more familiar and entertaining elements arrive in his films, the audience is so invested (if the film is working) that you can’t imagine losing them. He understands the necessity of consequences and stakes in drama, even if they come from an intimate place. This is a filmmaker who, after three great films (“Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter” are must-sees as well) that never take the easy wrapped-in-a-bow route in their conclusions, is not destined to make something special and memorable…because he’s already done it. [A]