Jeff Nichols‘ Mud almost has it all. It’s a sweet coming-of-age story, an adventure, a crime-thriller, and a romance. Lead actors Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey give outstanding performances as a boy and a man, respectively, who bristle when the world won’t conform to the mythic journey they’ve envisioned. Nichols gives the movie a sweet, soft, and loving tone that takes the best of identity of the Deep South (i.e. avoids racism), and uses it as a rich backdrop for a captivating tale. The film’s only flaw comes from implicitly agreeing with the main characters’ immature belief that women are not to be trusted. To the film’s minor detriment, Nichols doesn’t examine how his characters can grow up when the script embraces such a facile and childish notion.
Ellis (Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) take a motorboat to a remote island on a river. They discover a boat lodged on top of a tree, and find that it has a resident named Mud (McConaughey). Mud is on the run from the law as well as some some shady figures, and has found refuge on the island. He plans to repair the boat and leave the island once he’s reunited with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud enlists Ellis and Neckbone in this mission, and while Neck is wary, Ellis is too happy to oblige. Through his relationship with Mud, Ellis is able to escape from his parents’ (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) impending divorce and the loss of his riverbank houseboat.
Mud and Ellis are kindred spirits who reinforce each other’s misguided romantic ideals. Mud views himself as a white knight whose purpose in life is to constantly rescue Juniper. He wears a white cotton shirt as his armor and has a .45 pistol as his sword. His boot heels are marked with crosses “to ward off evil spirits.” He has a snake tattoo to memorialize the cottonmouth who almost killed him. When you throw all that together in addition to McConaughey good looks (albeit with a chipped front tooth), it’s not difficult to see why Ellis sees a role model.
Nichols lets us see the world through Mud and Ellis’ romanticism, and we get swept up in their adventure. Despite the characters’ embrace of chivalry, heroism, and fight against evil (Mud calls one of his pursuers, “the devil himself.”), Nichols never lets the story feel corny or overwrought. The director rarely takes the movie in a harsh or unnerving direction, but he also does away with overcooked sentimentality by never letting the rough, riverside-living become glamorous or magical. Nichols simply embraces a timeless quality of adventure complete with danger, mystery, and revelation.
Sheridan and McConaughey are perfect playing both the charming and the childish aspects of their characters. Sheridan plays Ellis with a captivating blend of toughness, defiance, naïveté, and vulnerability. As for McConaughey, he’s played immature characters many times before, but few have this level of sincerity. Mud truly believes that he’s Juniper’s knight, and she, like everyone else in Mud’s life, plays into his fantasy. Despite his lies and delusions, McConaughey turns Mud into a sympathetic character who may be a fool, but at least he’s a romantic fool.
Naturally, the awakening has to come at some point, and again Ellis and Mud find themselves on surprisingly similar paths. Ellis believes that he’s won the heart of upperclassman May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who he meets after punching out a guy who was harassing her. At that point, we may as well be traveling back in time to when Mud and Juniper first met. It’s childish on the part of Ellis and Mud to believe that love is about rescuing damsels in distress, and Mud has the opportunity to thoughtfully explore what these characters would do without distressed damsels. Instead, it takes a bit of a misogynistic bent as we see that these women lack the chastity and virtue that was projected upon them by Ellis and Mud. The lead female characters in the movie don’t need to be saints, but they remain objects throughout Mud and Ellis’ character arcs. There’s enough immaturity to go around, but it’s hard to say the Mud and Ellis have really grown up when the women in their lives reinforce an adolescent perspective.
The attitude towards women is a regrettable side effect of Nichols’ strong coming-of-age story. Knights need damsels, and Mud is at its best when the story focuses on the quest and the romanticism of the rescue rather than the actual captives. But much like the river that brings Ellis to Mud, Nichols carries us away in the adventure he’s created.
Click here for all our Sundance 2013 coverage. Click on the corresponding links for my previous reviews: