'Mud': A tale of the South and youth with universal power
By James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
"Mud," the third feature film from writer-director Jeff Nichols, takes place in the South, where the Mississippi rolls by and time seems not to. In Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) spend their summer days in each other's company. Ellis' home is full of silences that roar with all the things unsaid between his father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson). Neckbone's home situation is a little more fluid, as he lives with his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) with fewer rules and more clutter. The boys head out to an island in the river -- without anyone's knowledge and without permission -- to see the vision they've been told is out there, a large boat stranded high in a tree by the last flood. They examine the boat thinking they can claim it for themselves. It's too bad someone else has beaten them to it. They ask him what his name is; he says it's Mud. After talking, Mud makes up his mind: "I like you boys; you remind me of me."
Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, is a charmer, muscled and dirty and seemingly motivated by a lost love, a dark past and no small amount of Southern hoodoo-style mysticism; he wears a shirt that's got a "wolf's eye" sewn into it to protect him, and has nails in his heels that leave the shape of the cross in his footprints, "to ward off evil spirits." Mud needs the boat, he tells the boys, but they can have it when he's done with it.
To Ellis, Mud's a man wholly unlike his taciturn and distant father; to Neckbone, Mud's a slightly dirty and more dangerous version of his uncle. But when Mud explains he's only on the island so he can be reunited with his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), both the boys are willing to help run errands, bring food and convey messages as part of a romantic adventure, not realizing that there's real risk and peril behind Mud's romantic tale ...
Nichols has an eye for the beauty of the South in its smaller towns and wide-open spaces, and he also has an ear for dialogue; Ray McKinnon's performance as Ellis' father sees McKinnon say, perhaps, a dozen lines, but each of them rings true. Just as in "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter," Nichols can find the bones of what makes a genre story sturdy and drape them in new flesh until they feel fresh. Nichols also finds odd beauty in odd places -- a coiling ball of poisonous snakes in a creek, the bottom of a river where a man digs for oysters in the riverbed with a homemade helmet and his own two hands to feed his family. But that sense of the mystical and the majestic never gets in the way of the real-world events going on (Ellis' summer romance as a standout among them), even as they come to an action-filled climax that, compared to the tall tales and white lies that came before it, seems both unexpected and the only logical conclusion.
Both Sheridan and Lofland are excellent. Ellis and Neckbone aren't too-clever characters played by robotic kid 'actors,' and they aren't merely at the mercy of events, either. Mud's story may have a little appeal to the twosome thanks to its phrasing and love-conquers-all window dressing and the teller of the tale, but they also recognize real danger when it comes. As for McConaughey, he's superb here -- every moment right, investing Mud with confidence and concern instead of just "All right, all right, all right" swagger. Nichols works with his entire cast and crew superbly, and his most ambitious film also stands as his best, with a mix of the modern and the mythic unfolding around Ellis as he lives and learns and grows. Ellis may find a hero with feet of clay, but he finds a hero, for a while; when both he and Mud find out that's not exactly the case, Nichols' film attains a state of savage grace that'll stay with the viewer as events and truths and love itself, like the Mississippi, rolls past sight with slow, unstoppable power and on to the unknown future.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.