A pair of boys crosses paths with a strange man hiding away on a small island down the river from their rural Arkansas town. A curious bond forms, and the kids agree to help the man known as Mud reunite with the girl he loves, while evading those who are looking for him.
Who’s in It?
Matthew McConaughey is superb (and eventually shirtless) as the titular enigmatic Mud. Youngsters Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are both wonderful and authentic as best friends Ellis and Neckbone respectively. Reese Witherspoon is on point, while Michael Shannon is brilliant and hysterical each and every time he makes one of his few appearances as Neck’s odd uncle.
Writer and Director Jeff Nichols completes his Arkansas trilogy of sorts, which began with Shotgun Stories in 2007, continued with Take Shelter in 2011, and now concludes with Mud. They are not connected by way of characters or plot, but they are set against an atmospheric and almost eerie backdrop that is rural Arkansas. Born in Little Rock, Nichols here creates a character in the setting, as a river unites unlikely peoples, and there are distinct differences between those who live on its shores, and those who reside in town.
What’s more, Nichols presents us with Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer type characters in Ellis and Neckbone, savvy young explorers with proud, charming, and fragile. They are adventurers, imaginative yet sharp, naïve yet proud. They discover a wrecked boat on a small island, but they are not alone. There they meet the mysterious Mud, a grizzled and famished man who treats the boys as adults, and seeks their assistance.
Ellis is especially intrigued. He is more the leader of the two friends, more curious and thus more often getting in the way of harm. Ellis is also more in need of an escape. His parents fight, he struggles to talk to both of them, and his riverside home may be taken away. He too though is idealistic, and hopeful, and despite his quick mouth, quicker right hook, and tough exterior, he is still a boy.
His fascination grows with Mud, even as he slowly learns details of a past that may or may not be true. The film isn’t a mystery by any means, but from the viewpoint of Ellis, we’re not sure what can be trusted. Nichols puts us in the mind of the child, a boy looking for a stronger father figure (there’s a lot of that going on), and one who is given conflicting ideas on everything around him. He is told Mud is a criminal, but he sees him to be friendly and wise. Mud says he has a girlfriend, but this woman doesn’t appear to hold the same feelings. Ellis’s parents say they love him and each other, but why do they fight? A girl from school holds his hand, but are they dating?
These confusions blur the line between boyhood innocence and idealism with the harsher realities of adulthood. The drama that unfolds around Ellis, Neck, and Mud, while a bit extreme towards the finale, is all a means to explore the spirit of bright-eyed youth. It is beautiful, charming, masterful piece of cinema that immerses you in a world likely unfamiliar. Even though some moments may be a bit too convenient, your heart will race, melt, swell, and open up to these fascinating, real life characters.
Nichols triumphs, McConaughey is brilliant, evocative, and the two young leads rope you in immediately and carry you through this tense, emotional journey.
Should You See It?
Absolutely, post haste.
“This way of life ain’t long for this world.”