“You can call me Mud,” says Matthew McConaughey early on in Mud, the disappointingly mainstream follow-up to filmmaker Jeff Nichols’s impressive debut, Shotgun Stories, and equally solid second feature, Take Shelter. If you thought Mud’s title signified something evocative, something riverine and elemental, clearly you thought wrong. That’s just Mateo in Sling Blade mode, as the loveable outlaw on the lam, hiding out on an island while waiting for his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to blow into the nearby burg. The story isn’t his though; it belongs to two young’uns, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the charmingly named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who run across ol’ Mud one day when they’re making a pilgrimage to visit a houseboat stranded up a tree (that’s Nichols taking a bark-pulp page from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre). Guess who’s squatting in the cabin? One tousle-haired, chip-toothed, vaguely avuncular outlaw…goes by the name of Mud.
Credit hometown boy Nichols with getting the look and feel of rural Arkansas right. Alas, that’s about the only thing he does manage to nail down in this sloppy, shaggy, bloated saga. Mud is the kind of movie peopled with fascinating peripheral characters, played by the shamefully underused Michael Shannon and Sam Shepard, who could have been the focus of a far odder duck of a film. Shannon’s Galen is introduced trying unsuccessfully to sweet-talk a gal into some kink. When he isn’t too busy burnishing his hand-tooled diving helmet, Galen doles out advice to the lovelorn lads like, “Get back in there and get your tip wet!”
The main trouble with Mud isn’t that it feels content to play out as routine coming-of-age-in-the-sticks. It’s that the story is shiftless and lazy: Several times throughout the film’s first half, we see a seemingly unmotivated shot of a snake pit, writhing and roiling with serpents, in the middle of the woods. Will yonder pit have some eventual impact on the narrative? You bet it does. And the only thing more groan-inducing than its eventual deployment would be the subsequent scene wherein ol’ Mud sprints and then dirt-bikes his way into town, cradling an afflicted lad in his arms the whole way. As if all the foregoing weren’t bad enough, the conventionally upbeat resolution is risible, and our friend Mud finds his literal place in the sun. Speaking of which, bear in mind his words-to-live-by (borrowed, incidentally, from White Men Can’t Jump and Mud-ified): “Sun shines on a dog’s ass some days.” On the days it doesn’t, you can always slog through Mud, especially if you really need a nap.
The Cannes Film Festival ran from May 16—27. For more information click here.