“Mud” is director Jeff Nichol’s third feature following the intriguing ‘crazy… or not?’ rural thriller “Take Shelter.” As impressive as “Take Shelter” (and Michael Shannon) were, I think “Mud” trumps it, delivering an arresting and fascinating plot that is, above all, I think, a coming-of-age story. Young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives alongside the Mississippi River in a boat with his quarreling parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson.) The boat is in danger of being taken down for complicated legal reasons, and Ellis must contend with both the possibility of losing the only home he has ever known and the disintegration of his parents’ marriage.
Ellis’ best pal is Neckbone (Jacob Lofland,) and the two go on adventures that us overprotected Suburban kids can only dream of. They take a boat down the river and to a island, where a storm has tossed a boat in a tree. “This is our boat,’ they declare, as they climb the tree and into their new abode. Turns out the tree and boat are already occupied- by a man called Mud (Matthew McConaughey,) an eccentric loner on the run from the law. Mud needs food- and the more idealistic Ellis complies, while Neckbone keeps his distance.
Mud professes his love for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to the boys, and Ellis is sucked in by his tale of chivalry and true love, and decides to help him. But Ellis soon realizes that relationships are a lot more complicated than he had first assumed, and this is mirrored by his attempts to engage the interest of pretty yet fickle teen May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant.) Growing up is hard. But when you’re fighting for your life (as Ellis soon is when men come looking for Mud,) there isn’t a lot of room for mistakes.
Yes, McConaughey is great here, but I think the main kudos belongs to Tye Sheridan as Ellis. Together Sheridan, and the director, propel this film past common coming-of-age territory. One asset is the unique setting of the film. I’ve been on these roads, I’ve seen these landmarks. Okay, not literally, but I live in a similar area, a place that, similarly, would not generally be portrayed in the movies. A hundred times I’ve gotten a snack or a soda from a gas station identical to the one’s in this town.
“Mud” has a feeling of gritty realism without ugly attempts to make Southerners into nasty toothless pieces of human waste. The characters are three-dimensional and sympathetically wrought; there’s a certain complexity that fits with the boy, Ellis’, increasing awareness of the adult world. I simultaneously felt jealous for Ellis’ childhood of freedom and closeness with a best friend and worried for him as he navigates difficult social mores, hits emotional milestones and is actually physically endangered at times. Life’s not easy when you’re a plucky teen who’s better at getting into fistfights than getting out of them.
The whole cast is great here, and Michael Shannon, who was brilliant in “Take Shelter,” features again as Neckbone’s Uncle Galen, a shameless bad influence. We don’t live as far down South as Ellis and his family and friends so I missed the chance to be named ‘Neckbone’ or ‘Mud.’ What a pity.
I can’t help being reminded of the 1999 English film “A Room For Romeo Brass,” a movie about two undersupervised kids who fall in with a shady man with a dynamic personality. Both start similarly but end quite differently, as “…Romeo Brass”‘s eccentric adult companion turns out to be all kinds of crazy. I highly recommend both as looks at a most unusual male adolescence.
“Mud” is a compelling watch that becomes a mite implausible in the end stand-off. This didn’t bother me particularly because it is, after all, a movie. Matthew McConaughey uglifies for this role (what is with that buck-toothed thing he does throughout?) and proves, once again, he is not just a pretty face. Tye Sheridan is thoroughly captivating in the lead role. I hope to see more of him shortly. A good way to spend 2+ hours.