A close backwoods cousin to Stand By Me (1986), Jeff Nichols’ Mud is an often moving and unpredictable coming of age story that benefits from some striking visuals and all around strong acting from its cast. Much like in Take Shelter (2011), Nichols is very interested in masculinity and what it means to be a man in a tough America, though this time around there’s more in the way of youthful adventures and less in the way of potential doomsday. The filmmaker is pulling from all sorts of other works, though “Huckleberry Finn” is likely the one most will recognize, though the early works of David Gordon Green were on my mind as well. The work however, the work is still that clearly is his own. Not being a huge fan of his earlier work, Mud is top-notch with excellent writing and direction, not to mention the performances by Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey. Reese Witherspoon is no slouch herself, while newcomer Jacob Lofland impresses. Though not perfect, and running about 15 minutes too long, it’s got a lot of things going in its favor. With the right push, I could see this making the long haul from the festival circuit to the awards season.
Teenagers Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) live in a small southern town, experiencing the small adventures that rural kids tend to in films. They have a plan to claim a boat lodged in a tree on a small island off of the Mississippi, but when they get there, it seems that someone has already claimed it. That person turns out to be Mud (McConaughey), a man who used to live in their town but has been on the run for some time. Neckbone isn’t sure about Mud, but Ellis is instantly taken by him and they form a friendship of sorts, helping Mud with food and supplies. Mud is a fugitive due to an incident involving an ex boyfriend of his longtime love Juniper (Witherspoon), and he’s returned home to meet back up with her. She’s come back, but she’s seemingly brought along a bunch of bounty hunters waiting to exact revenge on Mud. This leads the boys to get involved with trying to reunite the lovers while keeping Mud from being caught. At the same time, Ellis is experiencing changes in his home life and a first step towards a relationship with a high school girl. It’s a lot to cram in here, but Nichols manages to pull it off.
Helming the feature is Tye Sheridan, much like he was in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), though I prefer his work here. Sheridan has a very promising career ahead of him, as he’s able to do a lot of emotional weightlifting without resorting to overacting. I found myself very taken by his performance. In a lighter turn, first timer Jacob Lofland is good as well, though not as strong as Sheridan. As for Matthew McConaughey, this could prove to be a stronger year then those who believe 2012 was the year of the esteemed actor. A very baity role, this is more a supporting turn than anything else, as his screen time is pretty limited. He makes the most of it though, and when Mud isn’t on the screen, you’re thinking about him.
With even less time in the film, Reese Witherspoon doesn’t blow you away, but it’s a very different character than we’re used to seeing from her. Michael Shannon pops up as Neckbone’s uncle, while Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon play Ellis’ parents. The supporting cast also includes the likes of Sam Shepard, who steals a scene or two, Joe Don Baker, and Bonnie Sturdivant.
Jeff Nichols sometimes is a little on the nose with his direction and writing, but he also throws in enough curveballs to keep you on your toes, namely during the third act. At two hours and fifteen minutes, he can’t sustain the spark that fill the first hour, but he ends things in a very strong way. Nichols’ script is very much in the style of a novel, but his direction is incredibly focused on nature. It’s an interesting mix and he pulls it off quite nicely. He still falls into the bad habit of repeating scenes but the surrounding material here is good enough to limit the damage.
Mud likely won’t garner the same attention that Shelter did, but Jeff Nichols is a filmmaker to keep your eye on. He’s got a masterpiece somewhere in him, I just know it. I also can’t wait to see Tye Sheridan grow up before our eyes. With Matthew McConaughey, my guess is that we’ll be talking more about him this year, whether for Mud or something else in his arsenal.
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Tags: Jeff Nichols, Matthew McConaughey, Michael Shannon, Mud, Oscar hopeful, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Sundance Film Festival