Jeff Nichols’s Mud is the story of a boy gradually coming to terms with the emotional and physical draw of girls as his parents’ marriage falls apart. His father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), is a traditional hard-working Southern man given to little talk of the emotional intricacies of day-to-day life, and it’s that aloofness, coupled with the continual stress of the family’s looming poverty, that’s driven Ellis’s mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), to announce that she’ll be leaving and taking Ellis with her. The family currently lives in a boathouse on the Arkansas River that was left to Mary Lee by her family, and her decision to move will allow the government to claim the property for public use. Ellis, indirectly encouraged by his father, sees Mary Lee’s decision as a betrayal as well as a needless perversion of a life that’s suddenly more appealing now that it’s in danger of vanishing.
So Ellis understandably welcomes a bit of distraction when it comes calling in the form of a strange drifter who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, stealing scenes left and right), discover the man on a nearby island, holed up in a boat stuck in a tree. The boys had hoped to claim the boat as a hideout, but they eventually reach an agreement with Mud in which the three will collaborate to help him flee town with his longtime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Neckbone, the voice of the audience’s disinclination to suspend disbelief, is understandably dubious, but Ellis doesn’t need much convincing. To Ellis, Mud and Juniper’s relationship embodies the possibility that love as an uncompromised daydream might really exist, despite the example his parents have set to the contrary.
Nichols might be the least self-conscious film director of note presently working in this country. His films are so direct and straightforward they practically feel radical when compared to the majority of contemporary pop films, which proudly flaunt their postmodern unoriginality with a brazenness that’s calculated to encourage the audience’s smirking, disaffected, but nevertheless loyal consumption. Nichols likes a strong, clean narrative, which seems to have become a dirty word (or a bad joke) for prominent blockbuster producers as well as for certain critics who distrust the notion that some people might come to a film for an active story as opposed to a winding consideration of aesthetics.
Though well-received, Mud has been somewhat misunderstood as a lighter, shallower breather for Nichols following the emotional intensity of Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. The film’s tone is trickier and more ambitious than many have suggested, as Nichols manages to spin a traditional boy’s adventure that quietly asserts a child’s eventual need to resist the streamlined moral simplicity that tends to characterize such stories if he’s to have much hope of happiness. It’s obvious why Ellis would initially admire Mud, especially as played by the charismatic McConaughey, as he’s initially presented as the kind of mysterious hero, detached from polite society’s various obligations and accompanying tedium, that boys are traditionally groomed to admire and girls desire.
But Mud is gradually revealed by Nichols, with a characteristic sense of decency and tact, to be a dangerous lost boy and a dreamer who’s chasing a woman he really doesn’t understand. Mud’s love for Juniper is basically a prolonged infatuation that’s grown into obsession, an act of simplification and distortion that mirrors Ellis’s inability to empathize with his mother (and Senior’s inability to understand his wife), or even the first girl who breaks his heart. This yearning for understanding between the genders informs the entire film. Mud and his father figure, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard, in his most affecting performance in years), are literally adrift at the end of the film, unable to reconcile themselves with women and life in general as they exist in reality. Mud is firmly rooted in tall tales as well as Southern genre films, but its central theme of male disconnection and misplaced aggression explicitly connects it with Nichols’s prior films. It’s the most beautiful, engaging, and emotionally generous American movie to be released so far this year.
This gorgeous transfer fittingly honors the film’s interest in the external textures of life along an American river. Colors are lush and varied, particularly the earthy greens and blues, and skin tones and facial detail are impressively precise. The sound mixes effectively emphasis the subtle sound editing, which immerses the viewer in the quiet audial gestures of life in the country, such as the sounds of the bugs flying and chirping. The more obvious pyrotechnics are also well-mixed, especially the climactic gunfight.
The various featurettes are pleasantly understated as EPK fodder goes, but ultimately skippable. Writer-director Jeff Nichols’s audio commentary, however, offers a detailed and enjoyable portrait of the filmmaking process that should be especially of interest to other blossoming directors. Nichols is at his best when elaborating on the effort that it took to create what would appear to be the simplest effects, such as the trickiness of shooting straightforward dialogue scenes in the tree boat with makeshift camera rigs that were essentially on stilts.
Jeff Nichols’s beautiful and touching adventure is a bracing reminder of the primal thrill that a great pop film can offer.