★★★★ / ★★★★
Two boys make their way downriver to check out a motorboat in a tree and claim it as their own. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) believe it is abandoned but their excitement comes to halt when they find a stack of Penthouse magazines, a loaf of bread, and some canned goods. When they get to shore, a man is there, fishing. A deal is made: if the boys bring him some food, they can have the boat. No-nonsense Neckbone asks why he does not get food himself. The stranger’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and he says he cannot leave the island because he has arranged to meet with someone. What the boys are not aware of is that the man before them is on the run from the law for murder.
“Mud” is appropriately titled for three reasons and each one is communicated beautifully. First, from the moment Mud enters Ellis’ life, something awakens inside the fourteen-year-old. Though Ellis does not know much about Mud, he is naturally drawn to the stranger and eventually looks up to him. Every time Mud talks about the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), we feel Ellis taking mental notes. He has a lot of love to give but does not quite know how to communicate it all the time–not to his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) who are on the verge of divorce, not to the high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) he crushes on, and not even to Neckbone, always by his side even when a course of action seems foolish. Through this mysterious man, Mud, Ellis gets a chance to think as a mature adult from time to time. And that is exciting to him.
Second, it embraces the idea that loving someone is very much like going through a field while leg-deep in mud. It is hard work, confusing, sometimes frustrating, and a couple may be unaware of what the other needs because he or she is too busy trying not to fall headfirst into the hurdles of circumstances. This is best shown through the marital struggles in Ellis’ home. We are not given all the facts of the crumbling marriage so it is wise to refrain from judging. His mother and father love Ellis very much, but they are no longer in love with each other. What matters is the fallout and their only child is caught in the middle, afraid of losing either of his parents, being uprooted from where he lives, and veering away from a lifestyle he has grown to love. The very core of his identity is at stake.
Lastly, stepping in mud or rolling around in it tends to get a person dirty. Ellis always being so willing to involve himself in Mud’s personal affairs takes a toll eventually. Writer-director Jeff Nichols helms a classic coming-of-age film in the sense that it is about the main character’s loss of innocence. Before meeting and getting to know Mud, Ellis has a very clear idea of what love is: staying together no matter what. Observe very closely how he handles the news of his parents’ highly likely separation. Compare that to a scene late in the picture which involves a conversation between a father and his son. Sometimes love is letting go.
The adults surrounding Ellis have interior lives. It is critical that we are aware of this because they serve as the young man’s guideposts when he himself is lost. Like him, they have thoughts and motivations. They are capable of change. I found “Mud” to be a respectful and honest film, driven by strong performances, especially by Sheridan, McConaughey, and Lofland, and guided by a smart writing and sensitive direction.
Best of all, it consistently gives more instead of resting on what already works. For instance, instead of relying on picturesque images of trees leaning on one side and the island’s cracked soil to establish authenticity to its Arkansan delta setting, there are subtle but relevant decisions like showing a hole on one’s clothing and the sorts of business establishments resting on the background of a frame. We appreciate the environment while getting a sense of the characters’ lifestyles.