Dave’s Review: Mud

Letter Grade:

The Good:

Believable acting, especially from the two teenage actors
Beautiful style
Surprisingly sweet

The Bad:

Slow paced at points

Cast & Crew:

Writer: Jeff Nichols
Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon

Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking

Set along the banks of the Mississippi River in rural and impoverished Arkansas, Mud is a coming of age story centered around two teenagers’ attempts to help a fugitive evade capture and reunite with his true love no matter how dangerous it may be. Matthew McConaughey plays the eponymous fugitive Mud (that’s right, I used the word eponymous …I may have even used it correctly…It can be your word of the day. Look it up. I learned it from a Jack White song.) who is on the run after killing a man who was abusive towards his on again/off again love interest Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud is discovered hiding on an island on the Mississippi River by Ellis, the teenaged protagonist and his friend, Neckbone (yes, that is actually his name in the film, not some sort of weird autocorrect error). The boys agree to help him make his escape, even though they learn he may be dangerous, so he can be reunited with the woman he loves.

You may never have heard of this movie, and that’s excusable. I can’t say for sure I’ve actually seen any advertising for it. I’m not entirely sure what constitutes an Indie movie anymore, but this film certainly has the feel of an Indie movie despite a few very big name actors in major roles. Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon, dirty-looking (as usual) Matthew McConaughey and now semi-known and critically acclaimed Michael Shannon are all pretty big names for an “Indie” film. Writer/Director (and Arkansas native) Jeff Nichols seems to be in the process of becoming a must-see filmmaker. All three of Nichols’ films (Mud, Take Shelter, and Shotgun Stories) have been very well received by people that actually saw them (which seems to be a very small number of people). He tends to have a beautiful style that’s a mix of Terrence Malick’s (Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, The New World) expansive and breathtaking cinematography and Harmony Korine’s (Kids, Gummo) gritty realism. After seeing this film I’m going to go back and watch his two previous movies, which I suppose is pretty high praise in itself. He’s certainly a filmmaker that I’m going to be keeping an eye on. It’s really only a matter of time before he gains the attention he deserves.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of a movie like this is casting and believable acting…and this movie nailed both of them. Nichols wrote the movie with McConaughey in mind for the role of Mud. McConaughey doesn’t exactly stretch his acting muscles in this role (you could easily argue that this is just extension of his Dazed and Confused character), but it does seem very apparent that the role was written for him. He does a very nice job portraying the charismatic, yet eccentric (he talks about his magical shirt a lot) personality of Mud. While veteran actors Witherspoon, Shannon, and Sam Shepard are all good in their smaller roles, the real standouts to me were the two teenage actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland. Sheridan plays Ellis, the central character of the film and Lofland plays Neckbone who is Ellis’s best friend/sidekick (and young River Phoenix lookalike…seriously, it’s uncanny). This is the first major role for both actors and the first role ever for Lofland. Both of their performances seem natural and heartfelt…which can be hard to find in younger actors.

It seems natural to me to attempt to compare this film to such recent critically acclaimed movies as Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild. In terms of setting and style this film is very similar to those movies in that it is set in an impoverished locale and features characters that are struggling to get by in just about every sense of the term. This movie differs, however, in that it has a sense of hope that other movies in this style lack. This is a film about poor, rural life, but it is not really a film about how horrible their lives are. Films such as “Winter’s Bone” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild” convey a tone of the hopelessness and despair that crippling poverty, drug abuse and domestic violence can lead to. In watching this movie I was completely prepared for that same tone. About three quarters of the way through the movie it hit me that this film has a decidedly sweeter tone to it than the other films I was comparing it to in my mind. It is a coming of age movie of sorts much closer to Stand By Methen other films set in these impoverished settings. There is no drug abuse (unless you count some drinking and the cigarettes that Mud is constantly smoking that he somehow manages to have a supply of despite being desperate for food). The characters in the film are poor, but not in a way that implies that they are worse off then the rest of us in the “normal” world. There is also no domestic violence, which is sadly unusual for the type of film I thought I was watching. Ellis’ parents (played adeptly by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are in the beginning stages of a divorce. In my head I assumed that the grizzled, blue collar, emotionally distant father was abusive and deserving of being divorced…like most father figures in these types of films usually are…That’s wasn’t the case. It really hit me towards the end of the film that I had made this assumption because that’s what I had been conditioned to expect from a movie in this setting. In reality the father character was tough on his son, but not abusive. He loved his wife and son and his life was seemingly falling apart, but he was a good man who had simply drifted apart from his wife. This is not the typical image of a fatherhood that we see in films of this type. It’s not a film about hopelessness. It’s a film about love (and how we learn to love), potential, and growth. This subtle shift on the genre is enough for me to recommend this film to others.

This movie is a little slower paced (which isn’t always a bad thing), but unlike other movies that are set in this genre that are similarly paced, this film actually has a plot, which makes it much less boring then similar films.

I’m not going to lie, I was actually a little surprised how much I enjoyed this movie. I completely expected it to be a depressing indie type movie without much of a plot. I was wrong. This movie has some real heart and deserves to be talked about much more than it is. I’d give this movie a B+. You don’t have to rush out to see it (in fact it may be hard to find in major theaters), but keep an eye out at your cheap theater or on DVD/Blu Ray/Streaming. It’s a very nice little movie.

Dave Bernard (5 Posts)

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