“THIS RIVER BRINGS A LOT OF TRASH DOWN, YOU GOTTA KNOW WHAT’S WORTH KEEPING AND WHAT’S WORTH LETTING GO.”
Jeff Nichols is a director who can genuinely utilize the medium of cinema as a transportation device to place you within his fabricated worlds. Debuting back in 2007 with his family drama, Shotgun Stories, and with his spectacular sophomore work, Take Shelter, back in 2011, Nichols creates films that are incredibly atmospheric, resulting in characters and stories that feel both down-to-earth and very believable. They’re all very much grounded in realism without falling into that genre’s idiosyncrasies of inaccessible plotlines and overall “directionlessness”. His third feature, Mud, is no different.
The film opens on Ellis (portrayed by Tye Sheridan) and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two fourteen-year-old boys spending their summer days exploring the various inlets of the Mississippi River’s Arkansas coastline. Ellis, in particular, uses this time to avoid his parents’ estranged relationship while also trying to understand love for himself and how to approach girls on said topic. During one of their island explorations the boys discover a beached boat that they claim for themselves, only to discover that a tattered squatter (Matthew McConaughey) has already taken up residence in it.
The man, who only goes by the name of “Mud”, turns out to be a fugitive on the lam who is also in search of a former lover (Reese Witherspoon), and asks for the boys’ help to get the boat up and running in exchange for a pistol. As a result of curiosity and determination for Mud’s relationship to work out (as well as wanting to own a handgun), the boys agree to help. Back on the mainland, though, they find it increasingly difficult to hide their intentions as their families, law enforcement, and bounty hunters on the lookout for Mud become increasingly suspicious of the boys’ odd activities, and the two start to question whether or not helping out a washed-up vagrant is worth it anymore.
Unlike Nichols’ previous films which felt smaller and more contained, Mud is more epic in its scope—like the great American coming-of-age/adventure story—yet it simultaneously feels like a small-scale, intimate drama. The performances are all top-notch, in particular those of Sheridan and Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, respectively, and films in which younger actors successfully carry the dramatic weight are always great to watch because they’re too few and far between.
It was a change of storytelling pace to see the film spend significant time on other characters besides the leads, in that the film actually shifts in its point of view momentarily and focuses exclusively on the supporting characters. Nichols frequently used this technique in Shotgun Stories, and although it’s a bit jarring at first it allows the audience to view the other sides of the story—as if allowing us to momentarily pander to the opposing arguments.
However, like Nichols’ other films, Mud does have its faults. For all they do to portray realism, his films never seem to get their themes across quite clearly. With Mud, the film continuously feels like it’s trying to convey a deeper message on the importance and/or existence of love and its significance in our lives, but it comes across as a bit lackluster and muddled (no pun intended). The film is also predictable and clichéd at times—and with its 130-minute running time that could be trying on one’s patience—but it fits in with the coming-of-age archetype tropes and thus doesn’t completely hamper its execution.
For what it’s worth, Mud is pretty clean. Engrossing drama, taut performances, and an accessible take to realism make this an enjoyable summer adventure film arriving just in time for said season. It’s neither a lazy river drift nor a white rapids ride, but a comfortable compromise somewhere in-between.