Like the mighty Mississippi itself, for better or worse the notion of rugged frontier independence rushes wide through the American Character—sometimes contained and guided within the banks of civilized society, sometimes overflowing, overpowering and washing away those same muddy borders. And sometimes just gunking up our National Psyche with a lot of useless, miring sludge and silt.
Of course, that ebbing and flowing struggle between the wild and the tame within the tough-but-savvy heart of a boy coming of age on the river itself fills one of our Great American Novels, Huckleberry Finn.
In his 2013 film Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols is well aware that he’s rowing his raft along the channels Twain marked 130 years ago. But Nichols (whose darkly intense psychological film Take Shelter grabbed indie in 2011 accolades for the director and his stars Jessica Chastain and Michael Shannon) does what all good storytellers do: He takes familiar themes and tropes and makes them work anew.
Mud follows two modern-day 14-year-old boys in Arkansas: Ellis (Tye Sheridan, the youngest brother in Tree of Life) and his pal Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland). From their home on the banks of the Mississippi, Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) makes a living off the river while his mother (Sarah Paulson) strains against their emotionally closed-off marriage. Neckbone lives with his uncle (Michael Shannon), an oyster-diving rock-band reject, his concert Tee’s covered by a massive makeshift diving helmet, his development genially arrested by weed and booze.
The boys discover first an abandoned boat stuck in a tree on an isolated river island and then a fugitive from the law named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in it. Domestic strife at home (not to mention his first brushes with pubescent desires) makes Ellis susceptible to Mud’s tale of romantic woe: Seems the yarn-weaving drifter is hiding out after killing a man who besmirched the honor of his one true great love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Sharing backwater DNA with Beasts of the Southern Wild (not to mention thematic content with other recent male coming-of-age films like Kings of Summer and The Way, Way Back), at times Mud has a hazy, ethereal naturalism about it as the film soaks in the idylls and adventures of an adolescent summer. But as he proved in the dark and forceful Take Shelter, Nichols’ moves his camera with purpose and assurance. This is not a meandering tone poem, but rather film making confident enough to take its time with its characters.
There may be shades here of Bradbury’s Dandelion Wine and a touch of Huck Finn’s rugged frustration with societal rules, but Mud’s conflicted heart feels closer to the novels of the late, great Mississippi author Larry Brown. The beauty of the film is that it perfectly captures the space between idealized adolescence and reality-bitten adulthood, balancing life-on-the-river authenticity with wisps of murkier magic realism.
Mud sports a fine supporting cast, including Witherspoon, McKinnon (Deadwood, Take Shelter, and the producer of Rectify), Paulson, and reliable old-school character actors like Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker. And of course the marketing and buzz around the film has focused on McConaughey during the year of his much-media-ballyhooed “McRenaissance.” (God save us from simplistic infotainment storyline hype.)
But the story and the film belong to Sheridan’s Ellis, the young man’s romanticism manifested through a righteous temper, matter of fact bravery, and willful compassion. Set in contrast to Neck’s good-hearted loyalty and hard-headed pragmatism, Ellis’ narrow, thoughtful eyes seem squinted both to see the more grown-up world he craves and shield him from its unforgiving realities.
Mud himself lives not only on a physical island, but an emotional one—not of arrested development, but bruised and battered belief in love as larger force of magic and power—he’s an aging white knight toughened and tarnished by too many summers in the harsh sun. As an actor, McConaughey has aged into a new sort of swagger—what once played as arrogantly sexy now feels much more interestingly stained as aggressive self-delusion eroded by maturing doubts. That once-rich tan now feels like protective leather, all vanity fading into desperation.
Ellis’ world swirls with oysters and catfish, mojo and cottonmouths; with stories of magic and death, and adolescent confusion about the sincerity of love. The young man faces mysteries as simultaneously sublime and simplistic as boats stuck in trees and older girls at the Dairy Queen.
None of this is ever grim or gritty—even the film’s darker scenes feel illuminated by river-reflected moonlight. In fact, when things do inevitably get more intense, Nichols can’t help letting in a little Hollywood plotting (complete with heavy-handed foreshadowing and an improbable ending).
It may also run a little long, but Mud’s story and characters are compelling throughout—especially when set against scenes of dusk on the Mississippi. We’re continually reminded of just how big the river is and how it still provides a living and life (not to mention death) to those willing to stay on it—or unable to leave.
Mud is currently available on home video.