Ellis and Neckbone live on the banks of the Arkansas river. What an amazing place to grow up this must be. Ellis stays on a houseboat with his father and mother, who are going through problems he cannot even begin to understand, but that may soon cost him his entire known way of life. In the evenings he sneaks off with his best friend, the aforementioned Neckbone, to explore the river and the many hidden treasures contained therein. One such adventure leads them to a small island, where they find their biggest score yet, a boat that has somehow wound up stuck in the high branches of an old oak tree. Along with the boat, they discover its current inhabitant, a man simply named Mud. Mud is a wanted fugitive stuck on the island after killing a man who had raped and beat his “fiancée”, Juniper. Along with the police, Mud is also being hunted by a gang of men hired by the wealthy and influential father of the man he killed. Stuck between a rock and a hard place, Mud must form a relationship with these two children in order to get the supplies he needs to get this busted boat up and running, and to get messages to his sweetheart along the way.
For the last few years we’ve all been hearing about this ‘McConaissance’ as it is called, that being the career resurgence of Matthew McConaughey. For years he was pretty much the American version of Hugh Grant idling away the mid portion of his career in thinly written Rom-Coms of the sort churned out by fellow ‘Mud’ cast member Reese Witherspoon. It’s not as if we didn’t know he could act before mind you. I admired many of his early performances such as the civil rights lawyer in ‘A Time to Kill’ (a movie most famous for Samuel L. Jackson’s great delivery of the John Grisham line “Yes they deserved to die, and I hope they burn in Hell!”) and who can forget the classic ‘Dazed and Confused’ role that first brought him into the national spotlight. In the first few years of his career McConaughey was in some top notch stuff. It was very disappointing to see him go from the likes of ‘Amistad’ to the quagmire of ‘Failure to Launch’.
However, I can happily report that he has indeed returned with a vengeance.
McConaughey’s acting as Mud here is some of the most iconic of his career, not so much for the emotional heaviness of it, but for the cool confidence he exhibits. McConaughey here plays the kind of drifter you could see Paul Newman having played in another generation’s movie. Mud also very much reminded me of the gunslinger Shane played by Alan Ladd, especially in the way he delivers dialogue that would feel at home in any classic western. My favorite of such being the following lines, delivered after Mud is called a ‘bum’ once too often by the young hothead Neckbone. “You can call me a hobo cause a hobo’ll work for his living and you can call me homeless cause that’s true for now, but if you call me a bum again I’ll have to teach you somethin’ about respect that your daddy never did.”
McConaughey gets the majority of the publicity from this movie, but it is Tye Sheridan who truly carries the movie on his back. He perfectly captures the hopefulness, innocence, and innate wonder of childhood. The only person more devastated by Juniper’s all too adult betrayal of Mud in this movie is Ellis, who loses not only his faith and trust in Juniper but in the concept of love itself. Sheridan pulls off the emotional devastation of his character flawlessly, and in such a way that makes you call to mind with bittersweet reverence the less complicated but still very thorny emotional pathways of childhood and early adolescence. Ellis is indeed a very noble character here. Aside from assisting Mud when the sensible thing to do would be to contact the police, he also shows no fear fighting older bullies who bother the highschool aged girl he has a crush on. He shows no hesitation even jumping into with one of the hired men who is after Mud, after he sees said man strike Juniper. He gains a shiner for his troubles.
Juniper here is played by Reese Witherspoon in a supporting role that is among the best work she’s had to do in quite some time. Witherspoon here is not the overly made up and polished symbol of “aww shucks” virtuosity that she normally portrays. In Juniper, along with Witherspoon’s natural beauty, we see a world weariness and wounded sensibility that makes her character both more sympathetic, and more infuriating for the choices she will make.
Sam Shepard plays Mud’s uncle, Tom Blankenship. He’s an ex CIA assassin, Mud tells us, and in Mud’s mind, that may be so. In truth he is a Vietnam aged veteran who had the responsibility of raising Mud for most of his life, and is the closest thing to a father that Mud has. Tom warns both boys to steer clear of Mud. He portrays the grown up perspective here, but without spoiling anything, he also gets to show off his badass side before all is said and done. Aside from Shepard, Ray McKinnon is cast perfectly as Ellis’ father. Just his face alone conveys that air of absolute parental authority. McKinnon is a rarity in today’s Hollywood. He has no boyish charm about him whatsoever. He conveys a kind of quiet masculinity that has been out of date for a couple decades now. I wish only that he had more scenes in the movie to show off these characteristics.
Michael Shannon plays the guardian of Neckbone in a very against type performance. Shannon normally gets the role of creepy looking authoritarian types. But here he portrays a trailer bound absentee stoner of a parent to young Neckbone, who is the Huck Finn to Ellis’s Tom Sawyer. Neckbone himself is also worthy of much praise here. The actor who plays him, Jacob Lofland, brings to mind a slightly more unhinged version of River Phoenix’s character from ‘Stand by Me.’ For all his quirks, he is the perfect wild earthy counterpart to Ellis’s more introverted personality. This is a movie filled with great characters played by great actors in a well crafted story with many universal themes.
I think if I had seen ‘Mud’ when I was the same age as the two main child protagonists in this film I would have enjoyed it even more than I wound up enjoying it anyway. This is going to be one of those movies that become a childhood staple, but one that is also a movie you will be able to re-watch as an adult and not feel embarrassed for having liked it in the first place. It will stand alongside Rob Reiner’s ‘Stand by Me’, a film it shares some passing similarities with. This film has drawn many comparisons to the work of Mark Twain, both for its setting and the characters of Ellis and Neckbone. It definitely does have a bit of a Huckleberry Finn style of adventure, but it is mostly in the spirit of the film that the Twain comparisons are most justified. Jeff Nichols, who is only thirty-five years old as of this review, and only four films (Mud being the third) under his belt as of now is going to be a director to keep an eye on for quite some time.
Mud gets a four out of five: GREAT.