The American South is a fascinating place; it’s a sparsely-populated stretch of land inhabited not only by people but by swamps, marshes, moors, and fields. Though many of these sights appear beautiful and serene on the surface, there is much more going on within them than one might suspect. It is within this type of setting that Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” takes place and similar to its rural backdrop, there is much more to the film’s eponymous protagonist than meets the eye.
Two Boys Just Seeking Adventure
The film stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Ellis’ best friend, Neckbone (yes, that’s his name as provided by the film – I couldn’t make that up even if I tried). Ellis and Neckbone find a supposedly abandoned boat stuck in a tree on a small island and decide to claim it as their own; however, they stumble upon the boat’s one and only inhabitant, a man who calls himself Mud. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is a mysterious figure to the two boys and the more cryptic he seems, the more interested they are in him, especially Ellis. Yet it is when they begin to delve deeper and deeper into Mud’s backstory that they soon come to realize he is not as innocent as they once thought.
“A Lot of Things Come Down This River…”
“Mud” isn’t so much about the title character as it is about his interactions with the two boys and more importantly, the ways in which their lives develop after having met Mud. Similar to Nichols’ previous film, “Take Shelter,” “Mud” concerns itself with one man’s struggle and how it affects those around him. Mud’s background and history is, well… muddled to say the least. As the film progresses, the boys as well as the audience learn more and more about this mysterious man but it’s almost as if every question answered spawns two more in its place. It is mostly Ellis who forms a bond with Mud, as Mud acts like a mentor to Ellis, giving him advice on life, love and friendship. Matthew McConaughey gives an amazing performance as Mud and watching the film, you sympathize with his loneliness and his innocent nature. Mud’s only real loyalty is to his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but even she seems to take Mud’s love for granted and the history and resolution of their relationship is one of the film’s strongest traits.
“… You Gotta Know What to Keep and What to Throw Away.”
The film rounds out its main cast with brilliant performances by the supporting cast: Sam Shepard plays a neighbour of Ellis’ who is as equally mysterious as Mud and even shares a history with him; Michael Shannon provides some comic relief as Neckbone’s light-hearted uncle and guardian; and Paul Sparks as a ruthless bounty hunter searching for Mud. Much like how Mud acts as a mentor to Ellis, Ellis acts as a mentor to Neckbone, as Neckbone is the more childish of the two and Ellis the more mature. Yet it is their interaction from the film’s opening sequence to its climax that prove friendship and loyalty can be a powerful thing.
Water is a significant symbol in the film as it represents both freedom and imprisonment – freedom because Mud plans on sailing away to the open waters on his boat, but imprisonment because without the working boat he is literally trapped on the island, having no connection to the mainland other than the two boys. The film is surprisingly approachable given its subject matter and dark undertones – though the final 20 minutes may not be for everyone as things take a violent turn.
It’s easy to see why “Mud” is such a lauded film; it’s a coming-of-age story that’s not cheesy nor overdone. Matthew McConaughey in the title role steals the show and the two boys are the film’s strongest supporting characters, each learning a different lesson from their unwitting surprise-mentor. Though some parts of the film may not fit in with the overall tone, the mood and themes stay consistent and there truly is a sense of development in all the characters. Combined with stunning cinematography and a deep, soulful soundtrack, “Mud” is a testament to the fact that everyone grows up to become not only a composite of their experiences, but the people with whom they share those experiences.