Coming-of-age tales in Hollywood are a dime-a-dozen but what makes Mud stand out from the rest is its novelistic structure, strong performances and distinctive Southern flavor which pervades every shot of the film.
Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the prodigiously-talented filmmaker behind 2007’s Shotgun Stories and 2010’s haunting Take Shelter, the film has the immersive pull of a great American novel, one that could have been written by William Faulkner, or perhaps Mark Twain whose influence can be felt all over the picture, from the rural South setting and the Mississippi river to the idiosyncratic characters with a penchant for storytelling, and naturally, young protagonists with colorful names.
In this case, the protagonists are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two 14-year-olds who spend most of their summers on the river, collecting things along the way and exploring the uninhabited islands up-river. One day, while exploring an island looking for a boat stuck in the trees, the two boys cross paths with a disheveled man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) hiding on the island. Although they are weary of him at first, the duo soon builds a bond with the strange man after he offers them a deal: In exchange for fixing his boat and sending his letters to his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), he will give them his gun.
Although the plot is relatively straight-forward, it’s this very simplicity that allows Nichols to tackle the themes he’s interested in: family, friendship, growing up and all the baggage that comes with it including masculinity, understanding women, and the angst of adolescence. Using these themes as a foundation, he’s able to immerse you in the story, transporting the viewer to this rustic, idle, almost forgotten world that seems almost mythic.
It helps that he’s working with fine actors who are able to sell his vision. McConaughey, who has been on a golden streak of late, with stellar turns in The Lincoln Lawyer, Magic Mike, Bernie and Killer Joe, continues that run with another terrific performance as the titular Mud however it’s young Sheridan who is the film’s real star. As the young man going through one of the most difficult periods of his life, Sheridan is a revelation – both heart-breaking and riveting. He’s tasked with carrying the film and does so with the confidence of a veteran.
Like its setting, Mud is the type of movie we rarely see in today’s corporate-run Hollywood. It’s a beautiful, touching Southern coming-of-age tale that marks a welcome change of pace from the blockbusters permeating movie theaters. Although it doesn’t scale the peaks of writer-director Jeff Nichols’ previous film, Take Shelter, it stands as further proof that Nichols’ name is a bellwether for quality, and one of the most promising voices in American cinema today.