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Review: Mud – An examination of Arkansas-style amour

Posted by on April 26, 2013 – 12:00 am

MUDMark Twain meets modern times as writer/director Jeff Nichols poetically explores the hazardous and winding paths of love while using the Mississippi River and its western shore along Arkansas as a symbolic backdrop in his new film, Mud.

I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when this story takes place and I’m sure that its date was intentionally left ambiguous in order to give the film a timeless feel; but I’m guessing it is set in the late 1970s or early ’80s, before video games and the Internet consumed most children’s time and they actually went outdoors for adventure.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are young teenage boys growing up on the banks of the Mississippi River. They’ve heard rumors of a boat that was suspended in a treetop during a flood and the friends go exploring to try to find the curious craft. When they locate the boat they also find an eccentric drifter named “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey) who is living in the trees on board the vessel.

It turns out that Mud in on the run after killing a man that beat-up his former flame, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and now he’s hiding in the woods waiting to meet up with the woman. Ellis is infatuated by Mud’s story and the boys decide to help him contact Juniper and assist in the couple’s escape by getting the treetop boat back in the water.

Mud is an ultra-superstitious character who wears a shirt lined with wolfsbane to ward off werewolves and has crosses nailed into the bottom of his boots to protect him from demons. He’s wise and wacky at the same time and although he appears to be a “bum” he takes offense to the term and intelligently defends himself against that label.

In addition to a police manhunt for Mud, the family of the man he killed, headed up by his father, King (Joe Don Baker), is also after the flaky fugitive with the intention to murder him. Their team of bounty hunters and King’s other son are watching Juniper’s every move as she is holed-up in in a local motel.

MUDEllis and Neckbone secretly take food and scavenged parts across the river to Mud while also running interference for Juniper; and in addition to his cloak & dagger efforts for Mud, Ellis is also living through his parents’ divorce and his first romantic experiences with an older girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who is just toying with the boy’s emotions.

Mud is a very nice coming-of-age film on the same shelf as Stand by Me and is also reminiscent of Sling Blade. Nichols’ effort is not of the same caliber as those other two films, but they are all quite similar in that they are about young men discovering themselves while dealing with damaged adults amidst tense and violent situations.

I liked this movie a lot, but I think that one of its minor flaws is the way the in which the violence unfolds towards the climax of the story. I don’t want to give too much away, but this was a quiet, thoughtful and honest film until it stumbles into a rather absurd sequence towards its finish. Nichols could have easily tweaked this ending and saved ten minutes from the movie’s excessive 130 minute running time. That being said, the rest of the movie is so delightful I’m willing to forgive its foolhardy finale.

Matthew McConaughey is absolutely wonderful in this film, as he has been in his past several roles, including The Paperboy and Killer Joe. This actor is so much more than a pretty bongo-playing face and it’s thrilling to watch him develop into this bold and versatile professional. It’s getting to the point where the McConaughey stamp on a film is a sign of high-quality. Scary.

MUDThe teenage actors who play Ellis and Neckbone (Sheridan and Lofland) in Mud are also first rate and they are backed-up by a cast that also includes Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’ reclusive riverside neighbor who happens to be a former military sharpshooter, Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ Mom and Dad, and Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s nutty brother who dives in the river using a Rube Goldberg-style submersible device.

Director Jeff Nichols has acknowledged being inspired by Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer stories and this film certainly captures the adventurous feel of those two rapscallions’ river escapades. Despite being overlong (and the aforementioned tonal deviation at its end), Mud is a very good film that looks at the importance of loyalty and friendship and the many different stages of love, all in an unconventional and unique setting. Grade: 7.5/10

Photos © 2013 Roadside Attractions