Jeff Nichols is fairly new to the filmmaking scene, but he is certainly making a favorable impression with the quality and scope of his projects. He is that classic auteur combination – a writer/director – with full control of both the story and the way in which it is presented. His second feature film, TAKE SHELTER, released only a year before this latest endeavor, was a storm of slow tension the likes of which you’ve never seen, and featured an unforgettable emotionally restrained performance from Nichols regular Michael Shannon. His projects are unique, effective, and beautifully made – and MUD is no exception.
While not quite the tension-fest that was Take Shelter, there is a certain suspense about whether man-on-the-run Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is going to catch up with the law and what will become of the two young boys who have befriended him. What is more distinct about MUD is its mix of wistful romanticism and hard social realism. Some have noted that the film is rather like an adult Huckleberry Finn, but the similarities go beyond the superficiality of the Mud character. It’s the film’s mix of daring adventure, social commentary, and cultural exploration that reminds one of Huck Finn. And while Huck may be grown up, it still manages to be a coming of age story – not only for the boys who help him, but really for Mud himself. It tackles issues like love, – both enduring and fleeting – relationships between fathers and sons, between society and nature, and the nature of friendship. All the while, it weaves a fascinating, adventurous story, both beautiful and romantic.
MUD is filmed in a harsh, faded color scheme, which somehow gives Mud a dangerous edge beyond his mountain man appearance. It also gives the locations – sometimes a town of rundown houses, motels, and strip malls and sometimes the open water and a wooded island – both a beauty that can hardly be explained and an ugliness that lies just beneath. The film takes pleasure in the ordinary, revealing the unexpected worth in junkyards, river houses, motels, and disused parking lots. Most intriguing is what brought the boys to Mud’s island in the first place – a boat that had been washed up into a tree by the last floods. A boat in a tree is a most striking and unusual image – it is still one of the most memorable things about Herzog’s AGUIRRE: THE WRATH OF GOD – and Nichols uses that to his advantage. He doesn’t linger on it unnecessarily, but it still leaves an impression, becoming a sort of strange castle in the sky. And when it finally comes down and meets the water again, it seems both at home and out of place.
Finally, the performances throughout the film are incredibly good. The boys, Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, are a match made in heaven. They have the casual interaction and the thoughtless devotion of the best friends they play. Lofland provides comic relief as the brazen, self-interested, cursing Neckbone, while Sheridan provides heart and pathos as confused, coming-of-age Ellis. Matthew McConaughey probably gives the performance of his life as Mud, the romantic, misguided, charming, lie-telling, heartbroken, forest-dwelling, homeless hobo. He is grizzled and dirty, but he’s compelling and endearing. And most surprisingly of all, he kept his shirt on for almost the entire movie. And at least when it inevitably came off it was for the sake of symbolism.
Two young boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the vigilantes that are on his trail and to reunite him with his true love.