Published on May 15th, 2013 | by Allan Brown5
Movie Review: Mud (2013)
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Plot: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two teenage boys living on the Arkansas River stumble upon a fugitive by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). When an unlikely friendship is struck, they agree to help him evade his pursuers and reunite him with his love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Mud is Director Jeff Nichols’ follow up to the beautifully realised and wonderfully insightful take on mental illness in Take Shelter. This film is more accessible than the previous but that’s not to say it has any less of the charm or depth of focus that made Take Shelter so captivating.
Mud follows the journey of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two young boys on the cusp of adulthood who discover a boat in a tree on one of the many secluded islands on the Arkansas River. But just as the boys claim their find, an unexpected and mysteriously enigmatic fugitive by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey) emerges. As an unlikely friendship progresses, both children disillusioned by the world of love (shown through many of the films subplots) decide to fully invest in helping Mud reunite with his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). However in doing so, both Ellis and Neckbone travel deeper into a world of crime and moral uncertainty than they ever intend.
Mud presents itself as a slow-burning coming of age drama / thriller, with slight whisperings of Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me. The films attention to detail from its landscape (which is in a sense a character in itself) to its focus on its characters is as much remarkable as it is refreshing.
Set in the southern wetlands of Arkansas, the film draws on similarities to Beasts of the Southern Wild (review), transporting you to a world that seems to exist in a different lifetime to the surrounding city. With its slower pace, naturalistic performances and authentic storytelling the characters are allowed to breathe, allowing the audience to emotionally invest as the increasing sense of dread haunts them through the narrative.
Across the board, the acting is outstanding. Matthew McConaughey, again turns in a wonderfully mysterious and unexpected role as Mud. Jacob Lofland and Tye Sheridan dominate the picture with two of the best child performances I have seen since Kodi Smit-McPhee’s performance in The Road.
The film is so multi-layered that it will almost certainly reveal more on repeat viewings. The director always keeps the focus on Ellis’ point of view throughout, this keeps the audience seeing the drama unfold through a child’s eyes. This too can be said for the reason we never find out some of the films other details, like: What happened to Neckbone’s parents? Why is the government taking away Ellis’ house? Why are Ellis’ parents divorcing? What is really going on between Mud and Juniper? These mysteries remain ambiguous to the audience just as they do to the children in the story. This is the sign of a talented writer/director that is very much in tune with his craft.
The film is layered with symbolism and metaphors throughout its subtext and a faint religious / spiritual thread runs through the narrative. However, as previously suggested these themes are only hinted at as they are witnessed through the eyes of the two children. From the many incarnations of snakes and evil spirits to the Devil (Scratch) and God, these symbols are open to the audience’s interpretation. In my analysis I saw significant references to the Garden of Eden, the island being the sanctuary of the garden and the snake being the charismatic, slippery character that is not to be trusted. I initially saw Mud as the snake before his character shift in the second act. These ideas and themes are present to keep the audience guessing and are proven to be an exceptionally powerful tool.
Through all its intricacies’, intrigue and character performances’ there are a couple a weak links in this otherwise perfect film. The first is in the movies over excessive length that includes too many subplots. Cutting away the fat would have benefited the overall narrative and its explosive final chapter that felt slightly jarring in this otherwise slower paced drama.
Summary: Mud offers charm, intrigue and standout performances by all and cements Jeff Nichols as a great and exciting new filmmaker.