First Posted: 4/30/2013
LOS ANGELES — The story of a sympathetic fugitive who forges a bond with two teenage boys near a mighty river down South, “Mud” is shot through with traditional qualities of American literature and drama. Jeff Nichols’ much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough second feature “Take Shelter” feels less adventurous and unsettling but remains a well-carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber.
Nearly every relationship in Nichols’s screenplay is threatened, fractured or broken. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) has good reason to believe that his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) are headed for a divorce, while his best pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), is being raised by his oyster-diving uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Ellis, who’s 14, lives in a funky old houseboat while the nearby Arkansas town is a characterless wasteland of large chain stores and housing developments.
On a deserted island out in the Mississippi, the boys stumble into the grizzled, unkempt Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who’s hiding out in an old boat stuck up in a tree. Even though Mud soon admits that he’s killed a man in a dispute, the boys are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and, in exchange for the promise that they can have the boat once he’s done, they start ferrying food to him.
Nichols readily admits the influence of “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” on his story, in addition to those of other Southern writers. Such stories were formerly staples of American writing, and there’s enough dramatic and emotional meat on this one to suspect that audiences would easily engage with it. The title character is a perennial, a flawed man who admits the error of his ways and hopes for a second chance in the face of those who vengefully seek to take him down.
Significantly more appealing is the boy, Ellis, a sensitive, watchful, tough kid who’s able to stand up for himself. Although much smaller, he punches out an older high-schooler and is flirted with seriously enough by an older girl to imagine that she’s become his girlfriend. His anger at his parents for not finding a way to remain together is painful enough to give them pause. Sheridan’s performance grows in stature and confidence as the film pushes on.
Mud’s getaway plans require the boys to steal an outboard motor for him, but he also asks Ellis to contact his ladylove Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who’s laying low in town waiting for the green light to join him. Also hovering, however, is a squad of bounty hunters led by a hulking bad old boy (Joe Don Baker), whose son Mud killed.
With messy hair, tattoos and a chipped tooth, McConaughey’s Mud is a mess but still not without charm. After a string of silly and underperforming commercial outings, Witherspoon is on the money here in a strictly supporting turn as a trampy gal who’s wasted her life thus far.
There’s more than enough anger, disappointment and disillusion to go around in Nichols’s carefully constructed, slightly overextended drama. It’s easy to criticize ‘Mud’ as old-fashioned, too dramatically familiar and too happy to fall back on climactic violence and wishful thinking when it comes to second chances. More than anything, though, the characters of the boys keep it real and alive, the film’s emotional credibility overriding its dramatic convenience.