All words: Ross Bonaime
With Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter, his second film after his brilliant debut Shotgun Stories, Nichols channeled a younger Steven Spielberg. His film was reminiscent of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with a husband and father as the sole person anticipating an upcoming unbelievably earth-changing moment. Nichols was able to show sympathy, fear, anger and love for Michael Shannon’s Curtis, who could very well be crazy with all the evidence available. Nichols similarly creates another fascinating, possibly unstable character with Mud, as Matthew McConaughey playing the title character is a murderer waiting for his childhood love to return to him. While Nichols might have created his own Close Encounters with Take Shelter, with Mud, he creates his own E.T.
Like all of Nichols’ films, Mud is set in Arkansas and follows two young boys, Ellis and his best friend Neckbone. When the two go further than usual on their boat, they discover a boat stuck in a tree and the fugitive Mud living in it. The two boys vow to help Mud get the boat working again and help him in his quest to get back his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
The story is told through the eyes of Ellis, portrayed by Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life, as he deals with new love, hopeful love, and dying love. Ellis has taken a liking to May Pearl, a girl several years older than him who may or may not be interested. Back at his houseboat home, his mother and father, played by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, are on the last legs of their marriage.
Much of Mud deals in the expectations of love and having the expectations not sync up with reality. Mud has an optimistic view of the future, however, and even has a great amount of laughs to it. Nichols has a style of humor that feels naturalistic, never taking away from the drama of the story, while integrating laughs out of the simplest things. Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is usually the third wheel in situations, but is able to bring some comedic relief when needed. Michael Shannon, also in a supporting role, isn’t as large a part of Mud as he has been in Nichols’ previous two films, but just the sight of him is often hilarious and he steals every scene he’s in.
But by far the standout of Mud is McConaughey, a man who is superstitious, longs for the woman he believes to be the love of his life, and whose only worthwhile possessions are a gun and a shirt. McConaughey has been great these last few years with fantastic role choices in films like Magic Mike, Bernie, and Killer Joe, but Mud might be his finest role yet. McConaughey played Mud with intrigue, mystery, danger, and compassion. Much of the role is in McConaughey’s mannerisms and look, and he’s incredibly proficient at pulling all of these pieces together into a fascinating character.
When Nichols submitted his vote for last year’s Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll, four of his films featured Paul Newman, and it’s easy to see that had this film come out in the late 60s, Newman would have shone in the title role, but McConaughey is Nichol’s perfect Newman surrogate.
Considering that only a few years ago that McConaughey might have starred in a romantic comedy with Reese Witherspoon, it’s great to see these two actors doing work out of their comfort zone. This might be Witherspoon’s most independent film in maybe fifteen years, but it’s the type of work she should do more of. Witherspoon’s Juniper is very decisively a minor character, but she’s equally, if not more mysterious than Mud is. Witherspoon gets to show how good an actor she can be, which she rarely gets to do in her more mainstream work.
Even though you have these two huge stars, Mud is by far the story of Ellis and Neckbone. Their friendship is what holds the film together and has slight traces of the childhood friendships seen in films of the eighties like Stand By Me or the more personal films of Spielberg.
Nichols knows how to take a typical genre type that we all have seen, be it the family drama of Shotgun Stories or the paranoid loner of a film like Take Shelter, but he puts his combination of hometown warmth, wonderful storytelling, and eloquent editing into films that have a new, distinct feeling to them. Mud very much has the heart of a film of the past, with a main character that evokes the ambiguity of a Newman character and a story that feels like some of Spielberg’s earlier work.