In his previous film, Take Shelter, filmmaker Jeff Nichols relied on subtle direction and the exigencies of financial peril to ground the apocalyptic, magical reality through which his protagonist suffered. In Nichols’ latest film, Mud, which expands to several Tarrant County movie theaters this week after opening last week in Grapevine, he explores the notion of individual truths versus external realities by placing the black-and-white naiveté of childhood at odds with the cold, hard facts of the adult world.
Matthew McConaughey stars at the titular character, a mysterious drifter hidden on an island in the Mississippi River who is discovered by Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two 14-year-olds searching for a boat somehow stuck in a tree. The boys agree to bring him food in exchange for the boat. When a state trooper at a police blockade on the highway shows Mud’s wanted poster to Ellis, the two boys confront Mud, who explains that he shot and killed the man who got his love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) pregnant and later pushed her down a flight of stairs.
Against that plot, Ellis has to deal with his parents’ gradual separation –– his family lives on the river, but if and when his mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), decides to move to town, the river authority will swoop in and remove their floating home “board by board,” a mantra angrily repeated by Ellis’ father, Senior (Ray McKinnon).
Senior is an honest man and a good father, but like all the father figures in Mud, his flaw is an inability to let go and adapt. He refuses to find an alternative to living on the river. Tom (Sam Shepard), a river-dweller who raised the orphaned Mud, insists that all of his adopted son’s troubles are rooted in his love for Juniper, and, sure enough, Mud’s inability to let go of her has put him in his current predicament. The boys become ensnared in that predicament, as Mud enlists them in acquiring the parts needed to fix the boat and sail away into the gulf with Juniper in tow.
Nichols deftly frames the plot against Ellis’ disintegrating family and his family’s disintegrating way of life. Another backdrop is the older girl Ellis falls in love with, who inevitably treats him like the boy that he is, humiliating him in front of a bunch of her friends and running around with another, older guy. Love fails everyone around him, and before long he calls out Mud for what he is: a cowardly liar. Mud’s whole scheme revolves around his purported love for Juniper, but Juniper is no saint, and as Ellis’ childishly simplistic idea collapses, he finds the holes in Mud’s story are way bigger than the ones in the hull of his boat.
On the surface, Nichols could be accused of blaming women for the problems in his characters’ lives. (A recurring snake motif drives home the Adam and Eve theme.) But on a deeper level, it makes sense. His men live in a simplified world built on the dichotomies of honesty and dishonesty, right and wrong, duty and dereliction. The women are much more self-realized — Mary Lee wants to leave the river because she’s lived her whole life on it and wants more; Juniper bails on the escape plan and goes out for a beer because she knows Mud well enough to suspect some kind of scheme. Sure, it sounds selfish, but these are people who decide to take care of themselves. The men get grief from their warped sense of order.
While the tone of the film could have stretched into darker waters, the Tom Sawyer-esque backdrop imbues the story with enough coming-of-age sensibility to soften the blows of Mud’s latent rage and the calculated violence of the men who want him dead for killing Juniper’s lover. Even the movie’s pacing suggests the quiet, inexorable movement of the Mississippi, and Nichols lets McConaughey’s lazy drawl channel his South Texas roots without falling into Southern-fried parody. Mud’s luck-based philosophy comes off as charming fool’s gold rather than faux-folksy. When the characters come to grips with their various unraveled truths, Nichols’ direction really shines.
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, and Joe Don Baker. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Rated PG-13.