|Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, and Jacob Lofland in Jeff Nichols' Mud|
**** out of ****
Mud is like E.T. for southerners. It’s about a kid from a broken home wandering the surrounding wilderness where he discovers a secret friend who the authorities are out to get. Instead of the friend being a magical alien, it’s a Matthew McConaughey. Like E.T., he needs to build something that will allow his escape and the kid risks all kinds of trouble to help him.
“I’ll be right here… with all these high school girls. That’s right.”
Alright, alright, alright. Let’s get serious. Mud is a pretty great movie and I can’t help but notice how it follows the formula of a coming-of-age family film, yet it lacks the light-hearted conventions you would expect from one. Coming from writer/director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) I was expecting something more adult in nature, but it turned out to be a movie with a strong relatable adolescent lead, played wonderfully by Tye Sheridan.
Here, Sheridan is Ellis, an Arkansas boy who often steals away from his family’s houseboat to explore the Mississippi riverbank with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). At the beginning, the two make their way to a small island, where a flood was said to have left a boat up in a tree. They find the boat, and to their surprise, a homely man named Mud, played by McConaughey, who is using the boat for shelter.
The two kids make frequent visits to the island to supply the mysterious man with food. Neckbone is skeptical but Ellis is intrigued by this self-reliant recluse with interesting stories and beliefs, which make life sound much bigger and more romantic than Ellis’ difficult home life with a mother (Sarah Paulson) who wants a separation from a father (Ray McKinnon) who vents his personal frustrations and shame towards Ellis.
Ellis soon learns that the police are searching for Mud and that he is wanted for murder in Texas. Ellis confronts Mud on this issue and Mud tells him that he killed a man in defense of his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is in town waiting to be contacted so they can flee together. Ellis is charged with the feeling of importance as a messenger with a quest to aid a hero who must reunite with his love. Neckbone is still skeptical.
Listen to Teri Gross interview McConaughey on Fresh Air.
Jeff Nichols is working on a bigger budget than normal here and puts the money in the right places with vivid - yet natural looking - 35mm cinematography and actors like McConaughey (continuing his recent hot-streak of interesting roles) and Witherspoon, who both have a kind of fame that runs parallel to how Ellis looks up to them. Also in the cast, is legendary actor/playwright Sam Shepard as a former mentor of Mud’s and neighbor to Ellis. Joe Don Baker is the angry father of the man Mud killed and Nichols-regular Michael Shannon plays Neckbone’s strange uncle.
Mud is a movie that perfectly captures the hopeful perspective of a youth who has discovered a role model, no matter how seedy and questionable the details and circumstances surrounding this man are. The movie contains an innocent charm contrasting an environment of cynical ugliness, similar to last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild but is a bit more accessible, like Stand by Me.
Listen to Jeff Nichols discuss the film with Elvis Mitchell on The Treatment -KCRW