Starring: Mathew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
You may like this if you like: Stand by Me (Rob Reiner, 1986), Whistle Down the Wind (Bryan Forbes, 1961), Walkabout (Nicolas Roeg, 1971)
Two 14 year old Arkansas boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) set out on their small boat on the Mississippi river to an Island to find a boat they hear about that is suspended high up on some trees. Looking to claim the boat as theirs, they discover that it already has a resident; A wanted criminal by the name of Mud (McConaughey). The three of them make a deal that if they help Mud get the parts needed to get the boat back on the water and help him be reunited with the love of his life; Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) then Neckbone can have Mud’s pistol. While Ellis, whose parents are about to divorce and he himself has confused thoughts on love, agrees to do it for much deeper reasons.
There is much to be admired regarding the ambition behind Jeff Nichols’ (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) latest. Most impressive is the conformation of Mathew McConaughey’s career serge of the last few years. From awful romantic comedies where he always struggled to stand up straight on the poster to working with Scorsese and Nolan on their latest projects; this is definitely a Mathew McConaughey renaissance. Here as the enigmatic Mud he gives a magnetic performance. Naturally he has his shirt off most of the time (some things will NEVER change) but he is note perfect and extremely watchable and likeable whenever he is on screen.
This is most definitely not just about McConaughey though as the two teenagers, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life and the incoming Joe with, gulp, Nic Cage) and newcomer Jacob Lofland provide superb performances as the films two main characters. Sheridan getting the more screen time as what would appear to be the films main protagonist manages to capture all the emotions that a 14 year old goes through with subtle perfection. As an impressionable 14 year old he does look up to the enigmatic Mud and as the narrative develops there are parallels in both of their behaviour and language. At 14 he is trying to understand the world, and especially the concepts of love and masculinity. His parents are on the verge of separating, he thinks he is falling in love with a girl at school a few years above him and it is this belief that Mud and Juniper genuinely love each other that initially motivates him to help Mud.
At 130 minutes this a film that likes to take its time and the gentle pace never feels rushed and that is only a good thing as the slow pace suits the tone of the film perfectly. It is not just the narrative’s pace that suits the seemingly slow pace life of deep Arkansas but this is also a film that is beautifully shot. There are defiantly elements of Malick in how Nichols and cinematographer Adam Stone capture both the beauty and subtle danger of Arkansas and the Mississippi River. When watching you genuinely feel the sun drenched heat and humidity of that place. It is a film with an incredible atmosphere where the setting is as much a major character as anyone else.
As the slow burn plot flows along this is a film that is consistently watchable and involving, with characters that you start to genuinely care about. However for me what stopped Mud from being a total masterpiece was that there is a lack of any real emotional punch. I understand the subtle and often gentle nature of the narrative, which works extremely well, but I was not personally completely gripped like in Take Shelter. Maybe this film is a victim of its own ambition and there are just far too many characters that it becomes a little diluted. Reese Witherspoon, Nichols regular Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard all give good performances playing emotionally significant characters but are given very little screen time. Mud would appear to be at its heart a coming of age story, but there is so much else going on involving other characters that the subject of two boys learning about life becomes a subplot. This is a layered film with many themes such as the subplot involving Ellis’ parents splitting up and the council likely to have their houseboat taken away, destroying his father’s way of life. Though again this is treated as a subplot but yet plays a huge role in Ellis’ emotional journey. Maybe not even having Reese Witherspoon appear at all, as well as the gangsters after Mud may have worked better for me personally, so I could have then focused more on the journey of the main characters.
Though Ellis is the main protagonist there is a dramatic change of point of view and pace in the final third. Though this is essential for Mud’s character arc it would be possible to debate if he needs one in some ways if this is a coming of age story. Again the final third, as watchable and genuinely involving as it is, appears to be a perfect example of Nichols trying to be over ambitious and give every character emotional closure. Though there were many times in the final third where I shuddered in fear of huge clichéd moments and thankfully on the whole Nichols manages to avoid these which is no mean feat.
Mud is a deeply involving slow burner of a tale that maintains a consistent pace, and is both beautifully shot and impressively acted by all. Real emotional impact is perhaps compromised due to an over ambitious attempt at too many character arcs and to incorporate too many themes, but otherwise this is a thoroughly enjoyable watch.