In Jeff Nichols’s beautiful and sprawling new film Mud, the river defines everyone’s lives.
It is at once innately awe-inspiring, dangerous and murky. It brings with its waters both trash and treasure, though it’s sometimes hard to tell the two apart. And perhaps it is what gives the film a timeless quality to it, as if it just happens to take place in the present but could easily have happened long ago.
Whatever decade it was set in, however, the storyline still rings true.
The basic premise is simple: Two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, find a boat suspended in a tree on an island on the Mississippi River that they want to claim as their own. They soon find, however, that a mysterious man named Mud is living there, unable or unwilling to leave the island, and needs the boys’ help.
The movie portrays love in various forms and stages. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) falls in love for the first time with an older girl and experiences infatuation in the beginning, but things soon turn bitter. Blinded by love, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) finds himself doing anything for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), regardless of whether it’s stupid, dangerous or horrible. And Ellis’ parents (played by the wonderful Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) struggle with a weary love that is slipping, and needs to change.
McConaughey plays Mud, a larger-than-life character, in a very real and human way, capturing the dichotomy of the role extremely fluidly. He might be a dangerous and untrustworthy liar, but Mud is also innocent, loyal and loving. McConaughey plays these two sides as if they were one in the same.
Mud might as well still be stuck in adolescence, the way he idealizes love at the beginning of the movie. This is undoubtedly part of why Ellis is so drawn to him at first, because Ellis is also idealistic when it comes to love. In this way, the film almost stands as a dual coming-of-age story for Ellis and Mud, with both characters being forced to come to grips with the reality and harshness of love.
The acting in the film is universally top-notch. Even legendary veteran actors such as Sam Shepherd and Joe Don Baker (who play Tom Blankenship and King respectively) don’t outshine young newcomers Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. The two young boys are especially captivating and natural; Sheridan as Ellis particularly carries the film and gives it a confident, heart-filled and believable center.
The moments where Ellis and Mud snap into action without hesitation, yet with clarity of mind, are some of the most captivating in the film. For example, when Ellis sees from across the street an older boy harass the girl he likes, he instinctively walks over, with no regard for traffic, and punches the boy in the face, as if that were the only sane reaction.
These moments are the ones that show how similar Ellis and Mud are, in that they are both inherently protectors.
Lofland, who plays Neckbone, and Michael Shannon, who plays his uncle, are responsible for most of the comic relief in the movie. Lofland is like a young River Phoenix with a gap tooth and a frank but filthy mouth, and almost every single line out of his mouth is hilarious. Shannon, who was in Nichols’ previous two films, shines here in a small but important role as a reluctant parental figure ill-equipped to deal with children.
Watching the movie, it is hard to believe that this is only director Jeff Nichols’ third film. The filmmaking here is so self-assured, the style distinct and the pace measured. Nichols’ previous films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, have similar pacing; they all build slowly but engagingly to violent explosions. But there is a definite progression in quality and confident directing from each film to the next. Nichols is restrained and never rushes to his finish in Mud, but when he does get to the finish, he lets it all run wild.
Nearly everything that happens in the movie has a payoff, even seemingly unimportant details such as Michael Shannon’s character adding lights to his homemade diving helmet and the maybe-false, maybe-not stories Mud tells Ellis and Neckbone. For this reason, the film is dense, but not impenetrable. Despite its 130 minute running time, there is very little fat in the movie and it never feels excessively long.
The film looks and sounds gorgeous. The music is beautiful and magical, but also subtle. The 35 mm film photography, for one, is breathtaking and adds to the classic American feel of the film. But maybe more significantly, the cinematography balances grand wide shots and intimate detailed close ups just as the narrative does. Mud is both a deeply personal and a deeply universal film, and that isn’t a contradiction. The one leads to the other.
Simply put, this is quite possibly the best movie in American theaters right now.