Director: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker
MPAA Rating: (for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking)
Running Time: 2:10
Release Date: 4/26/13
Review by Mark Dujsik | April 25, 2013
Like that great American novel about a boy named Huckleberry, Mud centers upon a river. In the early scenes of the film, a boy of 14, carrying only his backpack, sneaks out of his family's houseboat and takes to small motorboat to set out on the river with his best and only friend.
What is the appeal of the river? Writer/director Jeff Nichols' film suggests something familiar yet primal. For the boy and his family, it's home and a livelihood—though not a particularly successful one—of fishing and selling the seemingly minimal haul to various homes and a local restaurant. The river itself, the father says, is putting an end to their way of life.
There's trouble at home, so in those opening scenes, the boy takes to the river and brings his friend, who's heard a story of some curious sight on an island past the delta of the narrow part of the Arkansas River that the boy calls home, with him. They aren't escaping their respective lives, or at least they aren't escaping them permanently. The boys are off on an innocent adventure, always keeping an eye on the time, lest our protagonist is late to help his father earn a living.
The river calls this boy, named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), and its invitation is primarily one of discovery—the promise of something different from the day-to-day routine of his life. His friend is Neckbone (Jacob Lofland)—called "Neck" for short—and he knows there's something to break up to the routine out there past the river. They make their way, slowly but surely, in the darkness of the early morning, and they take their time when they find the strange sight on the island—a boat stuck in a tree after a flood.
The film has a laidback rhythm that flows like the river, and again like the river, it's moving toward a fixed end when the boys meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious drifter who's made a home out of the boat in the tree. We, like Neck, suspect Mud is up to no good out here alone (The name alone carries an obvious connotation), but Ellis is drawn to his no-nonsense way of talking and downhome form of wisdom. Mud needs food, and Ellis promises to get him some in return for letting the boys take over possession of the boat when Mud meets up with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman he loves whom he's waiting for so that they can run away together. Ellis and Neck—the latter reluctantly—decide to help their new friend.
The drive of the plot is the boys' attempts to reunite Mud and Juniper, help Mud find a way off the island to freedom, and evade a group of bounty hunters who are looking for Mud as a result of the murder of a man with whom Juniper was involved. The enigmatic titular character insists he was simply protecting the woman he loves, and Ellis is more than willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
What Nichols is really up to here goes beyond the simple setup of the plot. This is first and foremost a coming-of-age story about a boy who still holds a naïve view of the world—that parents stay together, that love stories always have a happy ending, and that all the people he looks up to are without fault—and is destined for a heartbreak or two or three. There's the fact that his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson), who provide him with the primary example of a loving relationship, are talking separation and possible divorce. She wants to move into town; he wants to stay behind—stubborn in the face of failure. Then there's a girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) on whom he has a crush. He stands up for her when he punches a guy making unwanted advances toward her. She appreciates the gesture, and the two share a tender moment alone together at party. He asks if she'll be his girlfriend, and she kisses him ever so gently on the lips.
Finally, there's the relationship of Mud and Juniper. Nichols maintains a masculine perspective on these key relationships. Ellis barely sees his mother, given that he spends the day working with his father and runs off to see Neck after finishing a day's work, so any information or advice he receives comes from his father. He's a proud and cynical man, blaming his wife for all the marriage's problem and telling his son that a woman's love isn't to be trusted. Ellis starts to think his dad might be right when May begins ignoring him. Even Neck's uncle (Michael Shannon), who makes his living by diving for useful trash in the river, avoids any serious relationships with women, taking a page from the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda."
It's little wonder, then, that the boy latches on to Mud and his seemingly ideal love for and with Juniper, but even that comes into question when Ellis meets his across-the-river neighbor Tom (Sam Shepard), the man who raised Mud after finding him in the woods when he just a child. Tom thinks Mud is simply in love with the wrong woman—one who's mistreated him many times in the past. Ellis is certain the "old assassin," as Mud calls him, is mistaken. He must; Mud and Juniper are the only hope for some salvation for his childish notions of romance. How can a person love another and not want to be with that person?
Nichols' turn away from a one-sex viewpoint is subtle as the women begin sharing their sides of the various relationships. These aren't cut-and-dry affairs with one side right and the other wrong. We start to sympathize with all of these characters—enlivened by illuminating and natural performances from the entire cast—even the ones who get pushed aside during the subjective perspective of Ellis' search for a romantic ideal and denial of anyone who doesn't fit that mold. Meanwhile, the bounty hunters, hired by the murdered man's father (Joe Don Baker) and led by the dead man's brother (Paul Sparks), start closing in on Mud.Nichols' observant and ultimately compassionate screenplay starts by taking sides, only to grow in understanding along with Ellis' maturation. Mud resolves all its entanglements without offering resolution. Ellis never receives an answer to his question; he simply learns that some questions don't have an answer.
Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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