In his third feature film, Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols has delivered a stirring coming of age tale that’s part Stand by Me, part Hickleberry Finn, and part William Faulkner. If it had been made in the mid-fifties, I can imagine a young Paul Newman as the title character. As it is, Matthew McConaughey, who keeps adding to his acting laurels with each chosen role, plays Mud. From Bernie to Killer Joe to Magic Mike, and now Mud, McConaughey seems determined to break out of the Hollywood rom-com pigeonhole and create characters that impress and intrigue. And maybe even get him an Oscar nomination one day.
Two fourteen-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone, live in a small Arkansas town on the Mississippi River. Neckbone lives in a trailer, with his Uncle Galen. Ellis lives, and works, on the river with his parents who have a small fish business. They hear a story about an abandoned boat on an island in the river and decide to go find it. What makes it more of a challenge is that the boat is allegedly stuck way up in tree branches, the result of a flood. They find the boat all right, but a strange character named Mud is living it in. He’s not crazy or threatening, just careful, and obviously doesn’t want to be found, for whatever reasons. The three form a bond that moves the plot along in some unexpected directions. Despite McConaughey’s presence, the two boys are the real stars of the film. Tye Sheridan is Ellis. This is his second film after Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Jacob Lofland plays Neckbone in his first film role, and the both of them really take to acting. It will be interesting to watch them grow and progress.
Also in the cast is Reese Witherspoon as the love of Mud’s life, with whom he plans to connect and run away. Playwright-actor Sam Shepard is a strange old guy who lives across the water from Ellis. Does he have a past with Mud? Oscar nominee and Lexington, Kentucky, native Michael Shannon has a very small role as Neckbone’s Uncle Galen. Fair enough, since Jeff Nichols gave him the lead in his last film, Take Shelter, which got great reviews for both Nichols and Shannon. Even stalwart old-timer Joe Don Baker shows up for a couple of scenes. I was very impressed with Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ parents, whose marriage, home, and business are teetering on the edge of oblivion.
Although Mud is not set in a time-specific era, it’s semi-contemporary, but yet of the age when kids addressed adults as “sir” and “ma’am.” The deep-thinking Ellis learns a lot about life, love, friendship, trust and more in the course of his journey with Mud.
At two hours ten minutes, the film does meander a bit, but then so does the Mississippi River, as well as real life, so it’s in good company. Mud has no car chases, no explosions, and no zombie robots from Mars just good story telling, well acted and beautifully filmed. And that’s especially nice to find in a low-budget indie film from out of the blue.
Mud is quite likely the best film on local screens at the present time.
The PG-13 rated Mud is now showing at the Esquire Theatre and AMC Newport on the Levee.