This review was originally published on TopicalTodd.com 5/21/2013
With Mud, the latest from writer/director Jeff Nichols and the first to not have Michael Shannon in the lead role, he taps into the nostalgia we associate with both the start of our adolescence and the end of our childhood. While this doesn’t seem difficult since they come hand in hand, it’s rare to capture both with such high reverence. A lesser script would focus on either the loss of innocence that comes with adulthood or the joys of being a child one last time but here, each romanticized while also full of disheartening clarity when we see how the world works in both the good and the bad. Its portrayal of the early teen years is one we see as our own even though it’s merely one we wish we had.
The film follows Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Loftland) who live in a small Arkansas town along the Mississippi River. Ellis lives on a houseboat with his parents who have their own matrimonial troubles. He’s reserved, perceptive but still has thoughts and desires of his age. Neckbone is younger both in stature and personality. He lives with his womanizing uncle (Michael Shannon) who enjoys a regular jam session with his drinking buddies.
One day the boys take a boat out to an island on the river and discover a tree-stranded boat from a previous flood. Their first actions when they discover the ship is a brilliant representation of the differences in their personalities. Neckbone is fascinated with the “Penthouse” collection ” on-board while Ellis is preoccupied with the signs the last owner left behind. Ellis quickly realizes someone is lives in their new hideout. Turns out it’s a runaway who goes by Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Those who bought awards stock on McConaughey ten years ago when it was at its lowest thanks to films like How To Lose A Guy in 10 Days should get ready to cash out soon. He’s the best he’s ever been here and proves his excellent work in last year’s Bernie and Magic Mike weren’t flukes. Mud is an awards bait roll but not an awards bait performance. He’s charismatic which definitely helps gain the trust of our protagonists but more importantly, he treats them as equals. McConaughey makes us believe the character sees the boys as such, while still carefully calculating which bits of his past to reveal to convince the boys help him find what he needs to make his getaway. Those two necessities are an engine for the boat and his life-long love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) – one of her best performances as well.
Ellis needs to believe Mud and Juniper are supposed to be together because he needs to believe in true love. He’s just met his first love – a girl a year older – and his parents are setting a poor example as they inch closer to divorce. His clinging to predestined love is the perfect metaphor for growing up. He’s been told of its existence from the moment he was born but as soon as he reaches an age where he can experience it ourselves, he discovers it’s more complicated than he thought. It’s another way the film shows us how our parents affect our worldview.
Sheridan and Loftland’s performances who second only to the script. There’s a trend in independent film to direct child actors, particularly the younger batch, to stress naturalism. While there are excellent performances from that school of thought, it’s as much the result of direction as it is the performance. It’s the opposite here with both actors. This is Loftland’s first role and his timing, both comedic and dramatic, is spot on. I look forward to seeing him in his next role. Rightfully though, this is Sheridan’s movie. He first caught audiences attention in The Tree of Life and everything he showed in that film, he brings here tenfold. His performance creates a childhood that isn’t your own but we believe it was all the way to the end.
Speaking of the end, there were pieces that felt false as I walked out of the theater. Some of that still lingers but those moments exist as part of a larger whole and the film is more complete for them.
****1/2 / *****