Impeccably whimsical, observational, moody and soul-searching, writer-director Jeff Nichols’s downhome drama ‘Mud’ slings its share of southern charm and tension as it presents a different kind of coming-of-age tale that radiates with absolute certainty. Triumphant and thought-provoking, ‘Mud’ also places a noteworthy stamp on the cinematic prominence of star Matthew McConaughey whose movie career has been revived as of late courtesy of stimulating turns in films that have been well-received such as ‘Bernie’ and the woefully underappreciated ‘Killer Joe’. McConaughey figuratively gets down and dirty in ‘Mud’ as he continues to thrive in challenging material that hopefully erases some of his forgettable filmography over the years.
Nichols, the auteur behind such critical gems as ‘Shotgun Stories’ and the disturbingly wonderful ‘Take Shelter’, presents what is an interesting interpretation on Mark Twain’s classic ‘The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn’ as he examines the unique relationship between two impressionable boys Ellis and Neckbone (‘The Tree Of Life’s Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) and McConaughey’s roguish river-roaming fugitive Mud. Skillfully atmospheric and dripping with reflective conviction, ‘Mud’ is the embodiment of contemplative character studies set against the sleepy Delta summer of discovery. Nichols’s meditative exposition is rich and vibrant while convincingly anchored by solid performances and a powerful message of resolution.
Mud is an unusual man on the run in the aftermath of his heinous act in killing a man. The troubled and tattooed Mud is ragged and raw although there are still traces of his handsomeness that accompanies his mystique. Anyhow, the hunt is on for the eccentric Mud as he takes up residence in a deteriorating boat along the Mississippi River in Arkansas off of an island. Soon, the ravaged runaway will encounter the teenaged twosome Ellis and Neckbone and rely on them to keep his confidences and whereabouts hidden. Gradually, a bond is forged between the boys and their unlikely grungy mentor.
Fourteen year old Ellis can relate to Mud somewhat as the poor kid has his own baggage he is carrying around on his shoulders. Ellis is still trying to come to grips with his parents’ split as the disillusioned mother (Sarah Paulson) decides to break away from his expressionless fisherman father (Ray McKinnon). So Mud conveniently becomes the parental replacement for Ellis as they both wallow in their quiet suffering.
The hardened Mud reaches out to the boys and offers an explanation behind the current manhunt that dogs him for his murderous sins. Mud explains that his bad and ill-advised impulses were simply done in the name of romance and love. Specifically, Mud goes into detail about what triggered his need for killing. In this case, it was done for the sole purpose of protecting his treasured girlfriend Juniper (Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, ‘Walk The Line’).
In any event, poor Ellis finds himself in the middle of a tricky riddle involving his boat buddy Mud. Can Ellis trust what Mud is telling him and Neckbone to be true? Is the desperate killer legitimately ‘innocent’ or is there more to the story than what the charismatic yet beleaguered Mud is telling? It certainly does not help Ellis any when he confers with Mud’s father figure (Sam Shepard) who raises further doubts and tells the boy that his new fugitive friend is quite shady and should not be believed. Now doubt arises about Mud’s version of his warranted killing of Juniper’s tormentor. Did Juniper questionable reputation encourage Mud’s rage? What is the actual story behind Mud’s affection for the teasing tart Juniper? Is it based on being obsessive, protective or simply displaying a blind and genuine commitment to her?
As if conducting the secretive legwork for Mud is not enough (this includes Ellis acting as the go-between for the fleeing Mud and Juniper), Mud’s dead victim’s VIP father (Joe Don Baker) works tirelessly to assemble the manpower to bring in his son’s slayer by any means necessary. Both Ellis and Neckbone try to do right by Mud and ensure that his escape from the authorities is set in stone so that the boat is repaired properly and they can get their wanted pal away from harm’s way.
The southern fried comforts and sleepy-eyed momentum of ‘Mud’ instils Nichols’s first-rate fable with the hearty flourishes of gothic grandstanding that resonates so eloquently. The sedate lyricism is refreshingly in tune with the components of true friendship and loyalty. McConaughey’s rascal-on-the-lam is oddly hypnotic and definitely is saturated in a strong and telling performance from the Texas native. Witherspoon is playfully sultry as the object of affection Juniper that pushes the unpredictable buttons of the desperate outlaw Mud. As Ellis, Sheridan resourcefully conveys the combination of vulnerability and innocence as a young man undergoing a rocky path of self-discovery. Even Nichols mainstay Michael Shannon is delightfully realised as an off-kilter uncle of Neckbone’s whose clouds of peculiarity is infectious.
This is one special occasion where it pays off to roll around in this ‘Mud’ patch that is so affecting and poignantly poised.
2 hrs. 10 mins.
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Tye Sheridan, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Jacob Lofland, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Critic’s Rating: *** ½ stars (out of 4 stars)