(MINOR SPOILERS) Matthew McConaughey’s screen rebirth continues apace in this engaging, consummately scripted slow-burn thriller from Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter). Mud finds two young protagonists in a scenario that invokes The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. But Nichols isn’t interested in merely making a straightforward boys’ adventure yarn; his is a rites of passage tale, one where the first stirrings of young love must vie with the harsh realisation that mutual affection may not endure. It’s a theme that reverberates through his characters, both young and old.
Nichols allows his narrative to unfold at a languorous pace, and the Southern backdrop sometimes recalls the work of John Dahl or Carl Franklin. But he is aiming for something less defined and more poetic than in their noirish visions, both visually and in his characters’ lyrical language. In particular, McConaughey’s Mud has a frazzled, almost biblical grandeur to his speech, superstitions, and wisdom. Nichols encourages this mythic quality. The two boys live fractured, dysfunctional lives; since there is no domestic bliss to return to Mud represents an escape, an adventure.
At the same time, Ellis’ (a very fine performance from Tye Sheridan, who made his debut in Tree of Life) experiences and travails compare and contrast to Mud’s own paradigm. We aren’t sure at various points if Mud is delusional, a benign fantasist, or harbours dangerous secrets. But it is Ellis rather than his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who feels the tug to aid Mud; even more so when he discovers that Mud is a fugitive from justice, for a reason he can relate to; idealised love (it’s amusing to see the less insightful Neckbone offer his services in exchange for an impressionable teen’s prize; a real gun). Ellis’ parents are in the process of separating, while Ellis himself is experiencing his own feelings for a girl a few years older than him (whom he believes reciprocates).
Mud has arrived in his spot of bother due to a yen for Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), a girl whom he has lived for since he was younger than Ellis. Much of Mud’s subtext relates to the contrast between the various shades of jadedness, bitterness or disinterest shown by adults towards love, be it Ellis’ dad Senior (Ray Mckinnon), hermit neighbour Tom (Sam Shephard) or Neckbone’s uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Mud may be delusional, but there is purity to his vision, a quality that captures Ellis’ imagination and swelling heart. It may not be realistic, but along side the dark manifestations of Mud’s infatuation there is an untainted spirit (one that has not yet been crushed beneath the weight of adulthood; Nichols seems to be saying that there is a place for heady dreams; it is best not to die inside).
However, Nichols offers parallels between Ellis and Mud that are occasionally a little on the nose. At times the symbolism is overt; the foreshadowing of Mud’s warnings concerning snakes culminates in his inevitable redemptive act. You can see what Nichols is doing; Ellis might be poised to repeat the fringe existence of Mud, disaffected and out-of-touch, unhealthily fixated on the object of his affection and mistaking acts of violence as declarations of love. But, in the final frame, he is enabled to move on, at a pace 30 years faster than the man he idolises. Because Nichols doesn’t take expected route he keeps the movie surprising and, because we are expecting Mud, whom we quickly grow to like, to meet a sticky end at the hands of the family of the man he murdered, there is an underlying tension even during the most beatific scenes. Ultimately, it is a surprise and a reward that the picture ends on an upbeat note.
The climax caught me off guard, I admit. Although Nichols is careful to set up certain characters, such as Tom, with a view to what transpires, there is nevertheless a standard-issue quality to the set piece staging and fireworks that feels like it has come from another, less aching and measured, movie. I wouldn’t say it disappointed me, as I can see thematically that Nichols has themes to explore concerning the importance of moving on, young or old, once has awoken to reality. But the tone had led me to expect a downbeat, reflective final note.
McConaughey isn’t a transformative actor (whatever his physical fluctuations may be, such as in the forthcoming Dallas Buyers Club); he leads with natural charisma, and any part marbles itself around that. The problem can be, and has been in the past, that this manifests as an off-putting cockiness; the kind of self-regard that has been prevalent in Tom Cruise’s career. More recently he has begun channelling his energies into really strong roles, with the result that his talent rather than his preening has started to shine through. He’s perfectly cast here (in a role Nichols earmarked for him when he conceived the story during the ‘90s), lending Mud a folksy charm that is as well intentioned as his bounty hunter in Killer Joe is poisonous.
Sam Shephard, no stranger to finely crafted material as both a screenwriter and a playwright, is legendary as the gruff but concerned Tom, while Nichols regulars McKinnon and Shannon (in a role so un-crazed it takes a moment to adjust) also make a strong impression. There are also sightings of Joe Don Baker and Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks.
The problem with a movie with a male gaze is that it can look as if the director/writer is giving the female characters short shrift; the female roles are by intention refracted. Nichols is more interested in exploring the mistaken assumptions of men about women than fully fleshing out his female characters; Mud and Ellis have unrealistic expectations of Juniper and May Pearl (Bonnie Sturvidant) respectively, which need correcting (or dashing). Our sympathies initially lie with Senior when the loss of Ellis’ river life is broached, but it becomes clear that Ellis’ mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) needs to break from her husband’s destructive intransigence. All three actresses are strong; Witherspoon has a couple of good moments, but her presence is more about the audience seeing a “star” in the role (the way Mud sees her) than bringing substance to Juniper.
Cinematographer Adam Stone complements the already striking landscape of Arkansas (notably the island Mud inhabits) with imagery that evokes childhood’s wondering gaze, from the first sight of the boat perched in a nest of branches (a vessel that offers Mud the prospect of salvation) to Galen’s idiosyncratic submarine excursions.
Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of Mud is that realisation of a clear and distinctive voice, where a director/writer’s vision is completely realised on the screen. The film will no doubt bring to mind other coming of age dramas, just as the Southern setting, on the edge of the wilderness, has a strong familiarity. But Nichols’ story is fully formed and (aside from his intentional nod to Mark Twain) fresh. For all its rumination on unrequited love, this is a deeply romantic movie; but the romance is for place and time and mood rather than people.