I was not a fan of Jeff Nichols’ last film, Take Shelter. In fact, ‘not a fan’ is a charitable way to put it - I was an active hater of the film. Watching the movie was, for me, like a torture session. As a result I approached his new film, Mud, with a mixture of trepidation and hope - after all, it couldn’t be as borderline unwatchable as Take Shelter, could it?
It isn’t! In fact Mud’s pretty good, and it bears so little resemblance to the tedious sturm und drang of that last film it almost feels like Nichols is a new man. There’s humor in Mud, and humanity and a sense of adventure. Mud is, at its heart, a boy’s adventure tale that has the spirit of an updated Mark Twain story.
Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, live along a big river in the Deep South. While out exploring it they discover a wondrous site: a boat up in a tree. The boys think to make the boat their clubhouse, but they discover it’s already occupied by Mud, a drifter with a big snake tattoo and a penchant for storytelling and superstition. Mud tells them he’s waiting for his girl, and together they’ll run away forever. Soon Ellis learns that Mud’s history is more complicated than he believed, but he still commits to helping the man get his girl and evade the law. Along the way he learns plenty of lessons about love.
Matthew McConaughey continues his comeback streak; his Mud is amiable and charismatic, but with a slight hint of danger under the surface. You understand why Ellis becomes so obsessed with the man, who seems to be living out a romantic life of freedom and irresponsibility. McConaughey is a natural weaver of tales, and as Mud he rhapsodizes in the most engaging ways. Every moment Mud isn’t on screen is a moment where you wonder when Mud will next show up. Watching a performance like this you have to wonder how McConaughey ever found himself lost in the wilderness; he’s an actor of immense depth and subtlety while also being almost impossibly likable.
Nichols cast two exceptional young actors as his leads. Tye Sheridan, who plays Ellis, was last seen in Tree of Life, and he brings a Malickian naturalism with him to this film. While he’s great, he can’t match the magnetic authenticity of newcomer Jacob Lofland as Neckbone. This is a fully realized performance that has shades of absolute, convincing reality. It’s as if Lofland were being filmed with hidden cameras as he went about his daily boyhood business.
The rest of the cast is loaded with greats, from Sam Shepard as the mysterious next door neighbor with a military past to Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s rock and pussy-obsessed uncle. Nichols allows Shannon to be fun and light, a complete 180 from his Take Shelter performance, and it’s a joy. This is a version of Shannon I’d like to see more, a laid back and funny side.
Given less to do is Reese Witherspoon, one of two prominent adult female characters. Mud is largely interested in heartbreak and love, but mostly from a male point of view. Witherspoon is Mud’s love, but she’s also a treacherous drunk and a grotesque manipulator. More positive is Sarah Paulson as Ellis’ mother, going through a divorce. But Paulson’s character is as bright as Witherspoon’s is dark, feeling more like a character thrown in to be a positive female than a character in her own right.
That’s one of the big problems with the script. I took issue with the heavy handedness of Take Shelter, and Nichols - who wrote as well as directed - shows no lighter touch on Mud. He hammers home thematic points with a sledgehammer, each adult character taking their turn to deliver a speech to Ellis explaining their views on love and heartbreak. Plotwise, Nichols telegraphs everything; an early sequence with a pit of snakes is followed by discussion of a snake tattoo on Mud’s arm and then a discussion of the time Mud was bitten by a cottonmouth, all establishing a blazing, obvious Chekhov’s snake for the film’s finale. Again and again Nichols puts a button on plot points and thematic concepts that would have worked just as well unadorned.
While that stuff makes the script frustrating at times, it also adds to Mud’s feeling of being an adaptation of a young adult novel. It has the vibe of an A Separate Peace or a The Outsiders, and the sprawling nature of the script (the movie is easily half an hour too long) adds to that literary feel. It’s a paradox - the things that make me ding the script also make the film special.
Mud is very good, and it’s grown on me over the last few days. Jeff Nichols shows that he’s not some kind of po-faced gloom merchant, and McConaughey continues his winning streak in a major way. Rough-edged and raggedy, Mud is the kind of film that could be a rite of passage for future generations of boys.