After the elaborate apocalyptic allegory of Take Shelter, you may be surprised to find Jeff Nichols tackling what someone more cynical than I might call a piece of cornpone Americana: a noirish, sincere, straight-ahead coming-of-age story set in the Arkansas wetlands. Fortunately, Mud is so good – so incredibly good; a classic in the making – that I promise you won’t miss the metaphor and abstraction. Not that Mud lacks metaphor. This small story about a pair of teenage boys who decide to help a charismatic fugitive skip town with his girlfriend turns out to be about love and loss and right and wrong and honor and fear and disappointment. About everything, really.
The film begins with shots of a fisherman’s houseboat, ramshackle and comfortable. Fourteen year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) eavesdrops on his parents before sneaking out of the house. Something’s wrong: his mom (Sarah Paulson) exhorts his father (Ray McKinnon) to “have a conversation.” Later it will turn out that his mom, who owns the boat, wants to sell it and move to the city. “I’m no townie,” Ellis says, outraged. The screenplay is so careful with the details that Nichols is able to set up the family dynamic with remarkable economy. His father’s a tough-minded man with a stern glare who “works [Ellis] hard because life is work”; when Ellis is late for their daily fish delivery run, we worry about an outburst of violence, but his dad merely shorts him five dollars of their usual ten. And Paulson sums up her relationship to both husband and son with a few exasperated glares and the sparest of dialogue: “I spent my whole life on that boat. I don’t think it’s too much to ask–.”
Ellis’s best friend is Neckbone ([sic], played by first-timer Jacob Lofland). Where Ellis is confident and bold, with an unassuming authority in his voice and a fierce and protective sense of justice (he has no compunction about slugging someone twice his size when warranted), Neckbone is more of a follower, and a troublemaker. The two boys motorboat to an island where, they’ve heard, a recent flood has deposited a yacht in a treetop. They find the boat, and also someone who’s taken up residence in it: a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who has snakes tattooed on his wrists, and a penchant for mild, almost half-hearted mysticism. He asks if they’ll bring him food.
The plot eventually involves Ellis and Neckbone’s attempt to help Mud get off the island and leave town with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), avoiding the cops and a group of gangsters who are both after him for an old murder. It’s a dangerous business, and Mud is a suspenseful and almost totally plausible thriller, the boys’ exploits gradually crossing the line between a Stand By Me-like adventure you might think would be cool to have, and something a lot more sinister.
For Ellis, though, the emotional stakes are higher than the physical ones. He hasn’t just risked his life for Mud and Juniper; he’s invested his entire faith in his fellow man into the quest to save them. His parents have turned their backs on each other, and the older girl he pines for laughs at him. But Mud and Juniper are in love, and that’s all that matters – or so he desperately hopes. And it’s his heartbreaking conviction that he’s doing the right thing that gets him through. The most furious accusation he throws at Mud when things go south isn’t that the fugitive nearly got him killed, it’s: “You made me a thief.”
Mud is a subtle and nuanced coming-of-ager. Ellis may lose some of his innocence and youthful idealism, but more through a change in perspective than tragedy or trauma. He learns that the world isn’t binary, that good people screw up, that his expectations for himself have to be higher than his demands of others. This could be cheesy stuff, or a lecture, but instead it’s seamlessly woven into a riveting, old-fashioned, red-blooded adventure, and it feels like truth.
The performances, particularly Tye Sheridan’s, are astonishing. Sheridan is a skinny, slightly gawky kid who barely looks 14, but he holds the screen against McConaughey with a quiet assurance far beyond his years. As for McConaughey, well: everything he’s touched in the past couple years has seemed to turn to gold, and this is no exception. If anything, it’s the culmination of one of the great career resurgences of our times.
Jeff Nichols takes a step toward the mainstream here, but it’s one hell of a step. His screenplay is literate and funny, with the sort of ceaseless emotional pull that can sometimes lead to truly massive popularity. That earlier Stand By Me comparison wasn’t quite on point, but not a category error, either. Of course, lightning still has to strike, but Mud has climbed a hill and ducked under a piece of sheet metal. This could be one for the ages.
— Eugene Novikov