Coming of age by the Mississippi River
Strong performances and beautiful cinematography in a Mark Twain-inspired tale
Directed by Jeff Nichols
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, and Reese Witherspoon
Mud is a reminder of how movies have the potential to be more than just entertainment. With a setting that is foreign to most, director Jeff Nichols tells the typical loss of innocence story through a new lens. By making Ellis (Tye Sheridan) the observer who eventually enters the world he observes, the audience is able to make the transition with him and live his adventure.
When Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) venture out to an island where they find a boat lodged high up in a tree, they claim it as their own. Soon, they discover that a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is living in the boat, and after Mud tells them of his plan to reunite with his girlfriend Juniper, the boys decide to help get the boat into the water so he can run away with her. Drawing inspiration from Mark Twain, Nichols shows us how Ellis observes and idolizes Mud, and how a young man’s idea of what love should be is transformed. Ellis is shown observing other characters’ fights and trials through windows, which emphasizes his status as a bystander. By the end, however, he begins to take control of his destiny and to affect the destinies of those around him.
Matthew McConaughey is the perfect choice for the gritty, headstrong Mud. In fact, his understated scenes are the most riveting; he truly embodies the character. Ellis and Neckbone were also well cast. Their exchange of subtle glances in reaction to Mud’s outlandish behavior, and their native Southern accents, helped them be both convincing and lovable. A lackluster performance from Reese Witherspoon is only a slight distraction from the strong performances of other minor characters such as Tom, a retired CIA assassin played by Sam Shepard, and Ellis’s father, a weathered adult played by Ray McKinnon.
To depict the small Arkansas community he grew up in and the significance of the river that runs through it, Nichols gives us a multitude of shots of the water. The various symbolisms of the river, including that it is the source of livelihood for Ellis’s family, and that it provides a means of escape from his parents’ crumbling marriage, are expressed through the different camera angles Nichols gives us. Unfortunately, the beautifully minimalist cinematography doesn’t make up for the strange choices of music. While the instrumental music suffices to create ambience, the twangy country music feels overworked and unnatural.
Still, the message — that we should hold onto childlike idealism and resist the inevitable acceptance of cynicism and pessimism — comes through, and this message is cleverly relayed through the eyes of a teenager trying to make sense of his world. When Tom tells Ellis to stop helping Mud because Juniper is not what she seems, Ellis retorts, “they’re in love and they’re gonna make it! If you weren’t such a worn out old man you’d know it’s true.” The dialogue sometimes borders on trite, but it helps us see Nichols’ intention to show us three stages of life: the wide-eyed, bushy-tailed hope in Ellis; the unrelenting nature of Mud who eventually comes to terms with reality; and the angry, old adults, Tom and Ellis’s father, who have both been disappointed by love. The three men are each transformed by Ellis, and in the end, we realize that the fact that Ellis holds onto so dearly is not foolish, but is in fact, admirable.