Movie Review: Mud (2013)
“Mud,” written and directed by Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”), is ostensibly an adventure story about two teenage boys who stumble upon a charismatic outlaw on an island in Dewitt, Ark., but it’s also a very specific type of coming-of-age story. It’s about how life, if you pay attention, keeps pushing you away from childhood absolutes and toward complexity and relativism.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan), 14, lives along the White River with his taciturn father, Senior (Ray McKinnon, the priest of “Deadwood”), and his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson, “Deadwood”), who wants a divorce. She wants to move away from the river, which is how Senior makes his living. It’s also all that Ellis has known. Neither man is happy about it but Senior accepts it; Ellis refuses. Or he deals with this coming instability by searching for stability.
He finds it in the unlikeliest of places: in a boat in the trees.
A helluva thing
The movie opens with Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hopping a scuffed outboard motorboat and heading down the White River so Neckbone can show Ellis what he’s found. They jump onto an island beach, head into the woods, walk over a pond full of snakes, and … there it is. Neckbone says that his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon, in a small role), thinks the boat wound up there during the last flood, which sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then Ellis finds bootprints with a cross in the heel, which also sounds Biblical but is probably just a Southern thing. Then the bootprints disappear in the sand. Draw your own conclusions.
Immediately, next to their motor boat, they see Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in a nomination-worthy performance), a scraggly haired, unwashed, dangerous-looking man smoking a cigarette, fishing, and philosophizing about evil spirits, snakes, and that boat in the trees. “It’s a helluva thing, ain’t it?” he says. Then he argues with them about who owns it.
It feels lucky when they get away but they keep returning, spurred more by Ellis, who’s curious and idealistic, than Neckbone, who’s knowing and practical. When Mud tells them, for example, that he’s waiting on his girlfriend, Neckbone asks if she’s hot. “She’s like a dream you don’t want to wake up from,” Mud says, to which Neckbone coughs out a “bullshit.” Not Ellis. He may be blunt and straightforward but he wants to believe in the very thing that’s disappearing from his life: a love that’s firm and absolute rather than flimsy and disposable.
Wisdom comes slowly. Turns out Mud is wanted by the police. “I shot a man,” Mud says later. “Kilt him. Sorry I didn’t tell you boys sooner.” The man he killed was beating the girl he loved, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), so Ellis is less deterred than spurred by this revelation. Even as Mud’s enemies gather, including the brother and father of the murdered man, along with their many bounty hunters, Ellis acts as go-between for the star-crossed lovers.
When Ellis talks to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), however, the closest thing Mud has to a father, he hears a less romantic version of the story. According to Tom, Juniper didn’t love Mud. She used him. She’s the reason he’s stuck on that island with nowhere to go. She’s bad news. Ellis listens but doesn’t hear. Then he does. On the day the lovers are supposed to meet, Ellis, keeping an eye out for the bounty hunters, knocks on Juniper’s motel-room door. Nothing. He peers in the window. Nothing. He asks the hotel clerk, who points him down the highway to a bar, where she’s getting cozy playing pool with another guy. Their eyes meet in the dark. He acts as if he’s the one she’s betraying. He is.
“This river brings a lot of trash down it,” says Uncle Galen, who makes his living scavenging the bottom. “You gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go.”
That’s the lesson of the movie, and there’s no easy answer. There’s more with Juniper, for example, and the ultimate truth about her lies somewhere between Mud’s and Tom’s versions. Nothing's absolute. It's all muddy.
And a river runs through it
“Mud,” like the White River itself, has a slow, steady pace that’s almost hypnotic, while its performances are among the best of the year. Everyone seems authentically Southern because the actors are Southern: McConaughey (Texas), Witherspoon (Louisiana), McKinnon (Georgia), the kids. Shepard is a stand-out. At one point, Tom hears that Mud called him an assassin—something about past CIA activity—and he laughs for a second; then, for about five seconds of screentime, which is an eternity, we get nothing but him lost in thought. It’s nice.
Some of the story threads, particularly at the end, could’ve used trimming. Did we need so much with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), Ellis’ would-be girlfriend? Did Ellis, like Mud before him, need to get snake-bit, too, and did Mud and Juniper need to see each other one last time? Did we need one more shoot-out in the final reel?
The final camera shots recall Terrence Malick, particularly “The Thin Red Line,” but they also recall the movie’s beginning. Instead of two boys in a boat, it’s two men: Mud and Tom. In the beginning, Neckbone and Ellis gazed with happiness at something before Nichols allowed us to see it: the island, where they would have their adventures. He does the same for Mud and Tom. It’s the open sea, and it’s a helluva thing.