Mud is Jeff Nichols’ third film, and while not as overpoweringly emotional as his last, Take Shelter, it is a compelling boys’ adventure, with themes of fathers and sons (both biological and not) and the heartbreak of love.
First, the title. Matthew McConaughey plays a man known only as Mud. He is a fugitive living on an island in the Mississippi River. I took two thing from this: one, the phrase “My name is mud” comes from the plight of Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg (also a fugitive) and was imprisoned for it (the debate to his innocence or guilt is still vigorous). So McConaughey may seem to be playing a character who has all the odds set against him. Two, what is more common, other than water, around a river? Mud, of course, and the title character is someone who is not only from the river, he is of the river, almost elemental.
McConaughey is the title character but the eyes of the film belong to Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a 14-year-old boy who is the son of a fisherman in a houseboat right on the river. He and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) explore the area like modern-day Huck Finns and Tom Sawyers (Nichols was inspired by the writing of Mark Twain) and go to the island to see a boat stuck in a tree. They then learn that McConaughey is living there, and while Neckbone is cautious, Ellis instantly bonds with the vagabond Mud. The boys then help get him food, and when they learn he is wanted by police they try to help him escape with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
This is a boys’ adventure set in a time that is vanishing. Set and filmed in Arkansas, these boys don’t have cell phones or play video games. Ellis’ father (Ray McKinnon) is a vanishing breed, and one of the subplots is when Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) wants to move into town the houseboat may be destroyed. Across the river lives an old coot (Sam Shepard) who wants to be left alone, but one can sense that his way of life is coming to an end.
But the overall arc of the picture is that love hurts. There are three parallel romances in this picture, and all will come to heartbreak. McKinnon tells Sheridan that you can’t trust women, but McConaughey disagrees, and we can see that the main reason the boy looks up to the fugitive is because they are both hopeless romantics. When asked why he is helping Mud, Ellis says, “Because he loves her.”
This isn’t a perfect movie. There is almost too much plot, and a scene involving Ellis in need seems right of an old Lassie script. But there are nuggets all through out, especially from the mouth of Neckbone, who is sort of comic relief. I love the way Nichols has the boys blurting out the questions we all want to ask, but with age comes discretion. I also found it funny that Mud has only two possessions he values: his gun, and his white shirt, which magically seems to stay white, even while living on an island in the middle of a river. Either he’s got a hidden stash of Oxyclean there, or Nichols is having a little fun.
My grade for Mud: B+