Mud (United States, 2013)

April 24, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mud Poster

The ghost of Mark Twain looms large over Jeff Nichols' Mud, a modern-day homage to the settings and characters popularized in some of Twain's best loved works. The protagonists in Mud, a couple of 14-year olds, are named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loffland) not "Huckleberry" and "Tom" but the similarities are evident. And the primary adult isn't the runaway slave "Jim" but a fugitive called Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Still, although Nichols' screenplay isn't a strict reworking of Twain's story, there's an unmistakable synergy and more than a few Easter eggs - including the character of Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who is named after the real-life inspiration for Huckleberry Finn.

The time period in which Mud transpires is, well, muddy. Based on the makes of cars and the general state of technology, I'd guess at the '80s, although it could be a little earlier or later. There are no cell phones or computers, but those things would have taken longer to reach into everyday life in the ramshackle houseboats where the film's characters live. Although the era is unimportant, the location is. Much of the film transpires on a deserted island in the Mississippi River and those scenes that take place elsewhere are set in backwards locales in Arkansas. The movie is steeped in this "Southern Gothic" atmosphere. It establishes mindsets and influences actions. It's far more than simply a photographically pleasing backdrop.

The aforementioned Ellis and Neckbone are best friends. They spend their free time taking Ellis' skiff on explorations of a tributary of the Mississippi as well as the mighty river itself. One day, while investigating an island, they come upon a boat lodged high in a tree, the long-ago victim of a flood. The treehouse boat is currently inhabited, however, by a ragged looking man named Mud, who introduces himself to the boys in a nonthreatening manner. He tells them he's waiting on the island for someone, who turns out to be his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). If they'll bring him food, he'll trade them the squatter's rights to the boat. They agree, although Ellis, captivated by the notion of true love, is more enthusiastic about the endeavor than Neckbone. Even the knowledge that Mud is wanted for murder does little to cool Ellis' excitement.

The most cogent criticism that can be leveled against Mud is that it's overlong and unevenly paced. As effective as elements of the coming-of-age story are, the movie is populated by several underdeveloped subplots - the friction between Ellis' parents, Ellis' infatuation with a local girl, and the "employment" of Neckbone's uncle. The last of those three appears to exist for little purpose beyond giving Michael Shannon some screen time. A more ruthless editor might have removed him entirely from the film. Nothing would have been lost except for a nice but unnecessary performance.

Mud is effective as both an adventure story and a drama. As Huckleberry's relationship with Jim caused a seismic shift in his worldview and hastened his maturation, so Ellis' interaction with Mud changes him. He becomes emboldened to defend an older girl upon whom he has a crush and, later, feels the sting of rejection that can come with unreturned love. He outgrows Neckbone who, not as deeply invested in Mud's situation, remains the same boy at the end as he is at the beginning. The contrast between Ellis' growth and Neckbone's lack thereof represents one of Mud's most resonant themes.

In recent years, Matthew McConaughey has re-invented himself as an actor, taking on roles that challenge him rather than going for big paychecks. Gone are the rom-coms of the '00s. In are parts in productions like Magic Mike, Killer Joe, and The Paperboy. Mud is just another step in McConaughey's evolution as an actor. It's a strong, memorable performance with nary a misstep. Supposedly, Nichols (whose previous feature was Take Shelter) wrote the part with McConaughey in mind. Tye Sheridan, whose only previous acting experience was in The Tree of Life, gives a strong portrayal of Ellis, who sits at the film's emotional heart. Jacob Loffland is equally credible as a 14-year old adventure-loving boy. Reese Witherspoon's unglamorous, understated supporting work recalls the kinds of films she made before becoming a movie star. Other recognizable faces include Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker, Michael Shannon, and Sarah Paulson (as Ellis' mother).

In the end, the only impediment to full appreciation of Mud is the length. The movie at times feels unnecessarily protracted. There are also a few too-obvious instances of foreshadowing. Overall, however, it’s a stirring coming-of-age tale that approaches the subject matter from an unconventional perspective in that it asks one important question: when growing up, is the belief in love more important than its actuality? Mud doesn't resolve the issue, but it explores it in detail.

Mud (United States, 2013)

Run Time: 2:10
U.S. Release Date: 2013-04-26
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1