Some film critics have described Jeff Nichols’ Mud as the perfect way to end Cannes 2012, a fun and accessible slice of cinematic Americana. But considering the film’s hammy sentimentality and bogus emotional connections, I can’t think of a more disappointing send off, especially considering the promise Nichols showed in his first two films, the great Shotgun Stories and equally excellent Take Shelter. Both examine generational trauma in sobering ways, never shying from the physical and psychological consequences caused by familial denial and repression. Complex yarns about people in transition grappling with daily uncertainty, each film is vital in its own way. If Mud lacks anything, it’s this sense of vitality. While it’s as equally concerned with change as Nichol’s previous work, Mud fails to instill palpable tension in its very standard and melodramatic story.
Like so many of its genre forefathers, Mud’s coming-of-age fable begins with children on a mission: best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) sneak out into the early Arkansas morning to visit a desolate island deep in the swamp where a large boat is nestled snugly in the branches of a tall tree. During their trip, the boys come across Mud (Matthew McConaughy), a mysterious and charming stranger lampooned on the island after fleeing his murder conviction of a wealthy Texas businessman.
Ellis quickly develops an admiration for Mud, whose sad story of unrequited love involving an old flame named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) sparks a romantic key in the youngster’s heart. Ellis’s devout belief in strong emotional ties becomes a key motivating factor as well, especially when Mud tasks the boys to be his go-betweens with the mainland, bringing food, supplies, and later critical intelligence about the gang of Texas bounty hunters on his tail.
Mud’s languishing, plot-heavy story swirls around in circles, establishing conflicts through long bursts of exposition and simplistic thematic groupings. Ellis’s troubled home life becomes an obvious parallel with the other failing relationships in the film, leaving little in the way of mystery when it comes to character relationships. While McConaughy has a blast turning Mud into a semi-delusional narcissist, nuanced performers like Michael Shannon and Sarah Paulson are wasted on the periphery. Thankfully, newcomer Sheridan is consistently excellent at exuding both confidence and fear in the more intense sequences.
Nichols’s eye for compositions is still apparent in Mud, but the visuals often lack poetic essence, an emotional connection between nature and the characters themselves. While the wide-screen compositions in Take Shelter give the film danger, possibility, even dread, there’s no such dimension in Mud, which is incredibly safe it both it’s depiction of location and regional identity.
What’s most heinous about this Southern potboiler is its sluggish pace and complete disregard for female complexity. The men of Mud are dense, dumb, or delusional and the women voiceless, timid, or disloyal. Characters like these are neither interesting nor lasting, and Nichols’s sudden right turn into mainstream melodrama, littered with easy answers and clean-cut denouements, is frustrating to say the least. We’ve come to expect brilliant regional cinema from Nichols, and maybe after just two films it’s unfair to have such high hopes. But with Mud he’s delivered a collection of safe conventions strung together by faux-lyricism, something that’s tough to dismiss during any point of a director’s career.
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic for Slant Magazine, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, The L Magazine, and The House Next Door. Glenn is also a full-time Lecturer of Film Studies at Platt College and National University in San Diego, CA.