Mud is the latest film from writer/director Jeff Nichols, who gave us the amazing Take Shelter just a couple of years ago. His latest work is a coming of age story set in Arkansas, along the banks of the Mississippi River. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore a nearby island and discover a boat beached in a tree as a result of a recent flood. Before they can fully claim it as their own, they discover that a drifter calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has been using the boat for shelter as he hides out on the island. He confides that he has recently been in some trouble and he is hiding out until he can be reunited with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud’s story strikes a chord with Ellis, whose parents have been having marital problems and are well on the path to divorce, and the boys become Mud’s accomplices, bringing him food and supplies and helping him to plan their escape.
At the core of this film is Ellis and his changing view on love and the way people interact. He identifies with Mud as a romantic; an example of how relationships are supposed to work and how love is enough to manage any problem that might arise. Over the course of the story, however, he begins to understand that love is a complex emotion – that just because it exists, that doesn’t mean it’s enough to see you through, and that just because you love someone, that doesn’t mean that your feelings won’t be abused or manipulated (It sounds totally depressing, but these are important life lessons, and I promise it’s not a total bummer).
The performances were all solid. Both actors playing the kids were charming, yet convincing – which is key to a film like this. If your child leads can’t carry the emotional weight of their characters, you’re done. But Lofland was great, and Sheridan as Ellis is really enthralling. He has the world-weariness of a kid who hasn’t led the cushiest of existences and is edging up on adulthood, but still the innocence of youth that hasn’t been totally shattered by the harsh reality of growing up (even after all of the emotional lessons he learns – I promise, it doesn’t break him). And McConaughey’s awesome streak continues. There are a few scenes in this flick where he is completely captivating and you become lost in his portrayal of this strange loner.
While Mud offers a compelling story, and the river-rat setting makes for an interesting background for our characters, it is not a complete win. While it mostly works, it does have some pacing issues, stalling out somewhere in the second act and languishing under its own weight. Stories like these need to be able to take their time and evolve at their own pace, but it felt like Nichols couldn’t really find the happy medium between that and making it feel like we were headed somewhere.
I am interested in with Jeff Nichols can do as a filmmaker, but so far, I prefer the tighter, more character-driven work in Take Shelter. But even with its slow pace and a couple of elements that don’t completely fit, Mud offers some outstanding performances and dramatic moments, and is one of those films that I think I could find myself enjoying more in subsequent viewings, despite its flaws.