Mud is a film that harkens back to legendary literature classics of yesteryear. It oozes Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and even though set in modern times, it could’ve just as easily been 100 years ago. The story takes place mostly on the river banks of the Mississippi and involves two boys happening on a mysterious and potentially dangerous loaner hiding out on the river.
The boys are Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) Ellis is soft-spoken but courageous. Neckbone is Ellis’ right hand man, although he tends to cuss like a sailor he’s a pretty stand up kid. The two explore backyards and alleyways like they are uncharted territory. The potentially dangerous man holed up on the riverbank island is Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud is sleeping in a boat that just happens to be stuck in a tree. The very boat’s legend is what brought the curious boys to explore the island in the first place. Mud tells the boys that he cannot let them have the boat. He explains that once he gets it down from the tree, then he plans to use it for his escape pod. But to escape from what exactly? As this slow burn of an adventure materializes the boys’ start to piece together Mud’s past and serve as a messenger to his long, lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) back on dry land. McConaughey dirtys up nicely, occasionally wearing his lucky white shirt and sporting a chipped tooth. Surrounding the mystery of Mud’s puzzle is the touching coming of age story of Ellis and the story of the dying river-folk. Their way of life falling victim to modern times and the river homes that float and live off the water being torn down one by one. Ellis becomes confused as he simultaneously deals with his young adult reality and the romanticism of Mud’s delusional hopes and dreams.
Although McConaughey and Witherspoon share virtually no screen time the casting is just right. McConaughey continues his hot streak with another spot on performance and Witherspoon, hides years of pain behind those eyes. Both actors turn in stellar character portrayals with a striking subtlety that’s quite refreshing. Sheridan’s turn as Ellis evokes just the right amount of innocence, so that we can really recognize it being stripped away in the third act. Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, and Paul Sparks complete a solid cast. Writer/director Jeff Nichols, whose been somewhat of an indie darling, has turned out one intellectually stimulating film after another with great storytelling in both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter. He follows suit with Mud, his best film to date. Nichols realizes that a great story doesn’t just happen, you have to read and turn the next page to get the full effect. There is no instant gratification with Nichols’ films. Some may even call his pace slow, but Nichols knows the value of classic storytelling of the past…and it’s good to know they actually still do make em’ like they used to. Mark Twain would’ve been proud.