In 2011, one of my favorite films was TAKE SHELTER starring Michael Shannon. That movie completely blew my mind. It was written and directed by a young man named Jeff Nichols. When I heard his latest film MUD was playing at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, I got really excited as I eagerly awaited for it to be released last year. But it never did. So finally, it gets released in the United States. I was definitely curious to see how Nichols would follow his last film.
This movie takes place in Arkansas. A 14-year-old kid named Ellis lives on an old houseboat with his quarreling parents. To escape, he usually travels around with his best buddy Neckbone. They take a boat down river and go to an island. There they find a boat stuck in a tree. Thinking it would make the perfect treehouse, they climb up only to discover that someone has been living in it. His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He’s a fugitive from the law. He shot and killed a man who was roughing up his on again/off again girlfriend played by Reese Witherspoon. I think the boys appreciated how upfront Mud was with them, because they begin to help him out by bringing him food and stuff. Soon, they help him get tools and a motor so he can get the boat out of the tree so he can escape to the Gulf. Also, Witherspoon arrives in town looking for Mud. The boys act as a sort of messenger for Mud, trying to get them together. Also in the mix is a mysterious neighbor played by Sam Shepard. And if things weren’t complicated enough, the father of the guy Mud killed is a kind of mob guy (Joe Don Baker) and has a bunch of guys tracking the fugitive down.
The synopsis makes it sound like a crime drama, but it’s really more of a coming-of-age story along the lines of something like STAND BY ME. It’s told mostly through the eyes of the 2 boys, mainly Ellis. After Nichols’ powerful TAKE SHELTER, the very understated style of MUD caught me off guard. It really takes its time, and it’s not loud or boisterous. It’s a very quiet movie. In fact, it may be too quiet and slow for some mainstream moviegoers. But I like this kind of style. It did take me awhile to get into it. It didn’t grab me right away. It’s one of those movies that slowly engage you as you begin to invest in the characters throughout. If you stick with the film, it’ll reward you with a worthwhile story.
The bond between Ellis and Mud slowly grows and it got to me in the end. The boy really looks up to this criminal. But Mud isn’t made out to be a bad guy at all. He’s made rather sympathetic actually, almost like a victim. Another compelling element was a subplot involving Ellis courting a local High School girl. It hits all the right notes and felt like how those young relationships really are. I usually have a problem with lots of teenage movies, because the young characters usually don’t seem genuine, but they felt real here. The movie also has a slow burn thriller element that builds at the pace of a snail, but it eventually reaches the boiling point and explodes in a brief but very well done sequence at the finale. In the end, I thought it was refreshing that this wasn’t really about the crime stuff at all, but about Ellis finding out about love, devotion and trust…. and trying to figure out what it all means.
The performances are understated, but very good. McConaughey continues with his string of impressive performances, and out of all of his recent roles, this one is his most subtle. His Mud is intense, but never feels the need to speak slightly above a whisper. It’s not a one-dimensional performance of a cooky bad guy, it’s a deeply layer performance that has a nice arc. He has a great heroic moment toward the end that I thought was pretty cool. Reese Witherspoon is also understated as Mud’s girl. It’s her best work in some time. Sam Shepard is awesome here as someone who has known Mud for a long time. He’s got some pretty great moments as well. Joe Don Baker…. well, he’s Joe Don Baker. He actually tones down his style, giving a low-key performance as the bad guy. The bizarre Michael Shannon has a small role as Neckbone’s uncle, and is kind of the comic relief of the movie. He’s just so weird, as to be expected. Ray McKinnon also provides some nice work as Ellis’ father, who is having a tough time keeping his family together. But really, this is the kids’ picture. And they do an admirable job. Tye Sheridan makes a convincing Ellis, and Jacob Lofland is very likable as Neckbone. These kids make the picture work.
Nichols has crafted a fine picture here. The filmmaking isn’t as captivating as his previous effort, nor is it trying to be. He really doesn’t have any shots that draw attention to themself. It’s has a nice relaxed pace. Maybe a bit too relaxed in some spots. I noticed a few brief moments that could have been slightly trimmed here and there. It’s over 2 hours. I think if it was a little tighter, about 10 minutes shorter, I think this could have been even better. But as it stands, it’s still a damn decent movie. The script is pretty solid, though there were 2 things that bothered me involving some coincidences and believability. The music has a nice, southern feel to it with a hint of tension. Fits the movie perfectly.
I have yet to see Nichols’ first feature SHOTGUN STORIES, but with his last 2 films, he’s definitely proven himself someone to watch. If you have the patience for slow-moving dramas, I think you’ll find MUD rewarding. It features another fine performance by McConaughey, a compelling coming-of-age story, and sturdy filmmaking. It’s definitely a movie that will stick with you long afterwards, and you can’t really ask for more than that from a movie these days. ★★★ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated PG13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.
– Running time: 2hrs 10min.