The South: not the picturesque coastal town of Charleston, nor the exciting, sinful city of New Orleans, but the middle of landlocked Arkansas. The director of Mud, Jeff Nichols, grew up in Arkansas, and his familiarity with the setting makes it feel about as real and honest as it could. It’s not told in caricatures of poor hicks, but with the sun shining through the trees onto mostly dirty rivers with very real people living on them. Ellis and Neckbone are two middle-school aged boys who meet a charming, but also disconnected man on an island near their hometown of DeWitt, Arkansas. He goes simply by “Mud,” and Mud needs help, as he is a man on the run. The boys embark on adventures, taking unwanted things from around their neighborhood in order to help Mud escape and sail away with his one true love. All the while, the boys deal with their own relationships at home, both familial and romantic.
The most simple and least ambitious of the four films we have reviewed thus far, Mud is nonetheless a lovely and interesting film. Continuing his hot streak, Matthew McConaughey (in the title role) is intense, gentle, and a little bit scary, but also loyal and good hearted. Nichols also manages to get very good performances out of his child actors, specifically the boy who plays Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Nichols struggles, ever so slightly, in creating a lasting and building tension that would have created a better climax. In addition, his villains are a bit on the cartoonish side, and he fails to give them the depth the others receive. All the while, however, Nichols manages to pull something ever so human and real from his characters, highlighting themes of lasting love, marriage, and father-son relationships.
A strong *** out of ****
At its best moments, Mud plays like a modern fairytale, filled with the mystery and suspense of youthful curiosity. These moments are impressive in that they create the kind of tense wonder found in only the best stories about children coming face-to-face with danger (think of the more serious moments of Stand by Me). The film pulls from these moments to draw out its major themes of naivety and misplaced hope, but it only truly succeeds when it maintains an air of intrigue. Unfortunately, the mystery is lost as the film moves to reveal more and more of its details, and it ultimately ends up relying on heavily worn, all-too-familiar suspense devices. This is not to say the film degrades into a completely worthless affair, as its characters are well drawn enough to build an emotional investment in their troubles, but it is to say that it is a disappointment – something that begins with great aplomb ends with an unsure dependence on the generic.
What worked best was the fascinating figure of Mud - this character’s macho self-assurance creates a cool magnetism that is always compelling. While it is clear that this man is hiding something, his tender hubris is undeniably captivating. For this reason, it makes sense that the young boys in the film latch on to him despite their better judgment – he represents a sense of stability in the midst of their otherwise uncertain home lives. However, it must be said that while this aspect of the film works well, it could have been better, as we are only given cursory glances into the family dysfunctions that so affect the impulses and motivations of both Ellis and Neckbone. While these glances serve as a sufficient base on which to build themes, it is hard to think these themes couldn’t have had more emotional resonance had the film provided more explanation. There is much to like here, and the film is beautifully shot and effectively paced, but there are too many missteps in the script to give a wholehearted recommendation.
A weak *** out of ****
What I thought worked well about the cursory glimpses into family conflict was that, even though they were cursory, they did not rely on any tropes or easy conventions. The parents do truly seem to love their son very much, even though they clearly have some marital problems. And even though Ellis’s father is outwardly scary, his intimidating façade is frequently pulled back to reveal someone hurting, loving, and human. I liked this quite a bit. Similarly Neckbone’s uncle, while being outwardly goofy, a horndog, and a bit careless, is revealed to care very much for his nephew, even though he has a hard time showing it. I thought the film showcased very well how complex father-son or surrogate father-son relationships can be. Nichols very gently shows us these relationships – peeking into peoples’ lives. The only one I would have really liked to see more of was the relationship between Mud and Tom, which was left slightly underdeveloped, probably out of necessity because of the actual physical limitations of getting the two in the same space.
You are right to point out that these father-son dynamics are executed well. Indeed, when they are there presented, they are delivered with honesty and care. Yet, I still feel the film could have benefitted from more time spent with these interactions, as they ended up feeling more like plot reminders than integral parts of the characters’ lives. As you pointed out, this is seen most clearly in the relationship between Mud and Tom, but it is true of all the family relationships in the film. Nichols should have taken time away from his broadly drawn villains to give more time to these relationships, as the baddies were almost completely unnecessary – villains with no names (or local cops) could have been far more foreboding.
There was another element of the film that also felt a bit forced – Ellis’s romantic exploits with an older high school acquaintance. I thought these parts felt like tacked-on efforts to help build the themes rather than flowing naturally from the story. It all seemed a bit too convenient that he would have these experiences at the same moment he is seeing his parents experience relational turmoil. What did you think of these scenes?
I did not find those scenes forced. In fact, I kind of like how it was all happening at once. It showed who Ellis was as a whole person, not just as related to the central conflict. I think, if anything, it makes sense that Ellis would look for that kind of relationship as his parents were experiencing turmoil. He clearly thought his parents were making a big mistake, and this may have been his way of acting out – proving that he could do it better than they. Yes, it was naïve, but I kind of liked that it put a period on that idea.
You bring up some good points about the Ellis’s dating subplot, especially that it helps to define him as a character in a more complete sense. In concept, the subplot serves the film well. In reality, I still felt these scenes to be a bit contrived.
What did you think of the Juniper character? Although not particularly well developed as we didn’t get much time with her, I really loved the scene where she takes care of Ellis as he has just been hit by one of the baddies.
I actually really liked the Juniper character, and found Reese Witherspoon’s performance to be effectively reserved. I appreciated that the film kept us at a distance from this character, and her own meekness helped to shed light on some tragic flaws we may not have otherwise seen in Mud. She is the great hope for Mud, and her beauty serves to melt Ellis’s heart in no time, so I found it affecting that she was eventually revealed to be such a mess.
|Reese Witherspoon as Juniper|
There is one last thing I would like to discuss – the film’s idealism, or lack thereof. I found it interesting that both Ellis and Mud are shown to be grasping onto the hope that love will conquer all, only to be let down by reality. I found this misplaced hope to be a major theme, and the film does not initially seem to be very optimistic about love. Yet, Ellis and Mud’s ultimate letdown serves to bring a new hope in their friendship, so it seems the final message of the film is that meaningful relationships cannot be forced, and the relationships that are most important to us are many times right under our nose. It was a nice touch to end the film, and surprisingly, didn’t feel forced or overly saccharine.
I think it was interesting that the naïve way that Ellis and Mud view love is shattered to make way for something much more lasting, complex, and beautiful – a meaningful love that commits despite flaws and is comfortable and protective, like Mud’s hallowed shirt. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but I think in a sense Nichols was contrasting how youth view love and how reality often clashes with this ideal, but how truly loving relationships are able to forgive and allow people to have flaws and love them anyways. I thought it was interesting and honest, and despite the film’s flaws, was movingly communicated.
Two-as-One Rating *** out of ****