Jeff Nichols’ sophomore film, Mud (2012), is a coming-of-age story about a young boy, Ellis (Taye Sheridan), and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), as they embark on a series of adventures that quickly escalate into lessons learned about love, trust, and how to live one’s life. Told through the eyes of Ellis, we get to see how a young romantic spirit copes with life in the underbelly of the Mississippi.
Learning that his future along the river is in jeopardy, Ellis seeks adventure with Neckbone. During their first outing on isolated island in the river, they pronounce an undiscovered treasure their own. However, a mysterious figure, Mud (played by a furiously well-acted Matthew McConaughey), has already staked claim to the treasure. The boys are both puzzled and intrigued by Mud’s stories and hardship. But is he trustworthy?
Throughout the entire film, Mud is always said to be a liar, a man that one should never trust. Yet everything Mud tells the boys is a heartfelt confession. Mud shows the young boys that some people may never change their ways, but that they are the ones in control of their future they desire. A man of deep superstition, Mud is now relying on the trust of his first love (Reese Witherspoon) to save him from the island to which he has been cast. To assist in his escape, Mud has either recruited or manipulated the young boys to help accumulate essential items and pass along notes that no one else can see. The mystery quickens when state troopers, a neighbour with a trigger finger, and some out-of-state plates begin asking if the boys have seen Mud.
The film includes two tremendous acting performances from Sheridan (Tree of Life) and McConaughey. Sheridan was able to handle his role with such maturity, yet somehow managed to maintain a believable sense of wonder throughout the entire film. However, without Mathew McConaughey portraying the lively – and potentially dangerous – Mud, the film could easily have floated off course. The line is so finely drawn between McConaughey’s heroism and deceit, you refuse to look away when the unforeseen ending reveals another layer to the story.
Mud is told in the same nostalgic breath as a Huckleberry Finn adventure with a downwind whisper of a Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line (1998), The Tree of Life (2011)) film. It seduces the tendencies of an adolescent seeking both love and adventure. The embedded lesson illustrates that there may be consequences for your actions, but if your actions are with merit, then the punishment is just. Time and time again, Ellis engages in fistfights and scuffles with people much larger in stature, but when his cause is for a genuine reason, the unjust never fight back. They always walk away. But when he fights for jealousy or angst, he receives the blows twice as hard.
Unfortunately, as a film, the story stretches farther than its arms could possibly reach. The film was too busy cradling Ellis and Mud to allow the villains to develop fully. Therefore, when the ending does come, you feel that there wasn’t enough time vested to know and truly hate these new faces. Sure, you understand why they would go to such lengths to find Mud, but we don’t know whether they are motivated enough to do anything to him. We see Mud’s desperation and would understand what he is capable of. Yet we are unsure what to make of anybody introduced during the film’s second act.
In short, Mud will be one of the best films of the year and is unlikely to disappoint any movie viewer. Although the story takes one swig of whiskey more than its blood can dilute, the film will leave you with a nice summer buzz, like drinking dandelion wine under an evergreen tree on a warm summer night.