Rooster Illusion is nothing if not a paragon of good taste and professional integrity. As such, when we make promises, we keep them, damn it. This introduction, like all my introductions, is serving a few different purposes. First, it is literally defining my critical values. Second, it is cleverly raising some of the important themes of the movie I’m talking about, themes which it turns out I’m actually not going to address in great detail. Third, it’s filling up space. Most importantly, though, I am reminding you, dear reader, that a few weeks ago I made a promise to talk about this movie, and today I am fulfilling that promise.
The Plot: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a hapless fourteen-year-old from rural Arkansas. As his parents’ marriage crumbles, Ellis begins to spend more time with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). While exploring a boat that was left in a tree by a recent flood, the boys encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive in hiding waiting to meet up with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Desperately trying to defend what he believes to be a true romance, Ellis agrees to help Mud evade state troopers and bounty hunters, and escape Arkansas with his love.
This is the third film from writer/director Jeff Nichols. If you are an avid reader of this column or of this website, you have heard about his other films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, and are familiar with my feelings about them. The latter especially is nothing short of a filmic achievement, but it is aggressively soul-crushing. Brilliant, yes, but damn, does that movie ever bring you down. Mud is a pretty pleasant tonal shift from the previous two. Notably, Michael Shannon is in this film played by Matthew McConaughey and instead takes a small humorous role. That’s right. I said humorous. Mud, while it has its sad moments and is anything but a comedy, is a much easier film to watch. I laughed several times throughout.
As I said, this is new for Jeff Nichols. He doesn’t really do humor, or at least he didn’t before. Mud is going to be a pivotal film in his career. He proved with his previous films that he can write and direct; he proved he could be thought-provoking, that he could get incredible performances out of actors, that he could quietly invoke a deep and powerful emotion. Mud, though, serves as an opportunity for him to demonstrate his widespread capabilities and versatility. While carefully maintaining the elements that made Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he shows that he can handle comedy and (more unexpectedly) action. To reiterate, I cannot stress enough that Mud is not a comedy or an action movie. It is a drama, it is sad in a lot of places, and it is serious. Its funny instances only occur as they might in real life; they fit the characters. Since the characters are not totally empty shells of abject sadness, neither is the movie. This type of comedy is not unexpected from a writer of this ilk.
What was sort of unexpected was the SPOILER climactic shootout. I didn’t see that one coming. Unsurprisingly, Nichols directs it with restraint and verisimilitude. It’s gripping and exciting, but realistic and grounded at the same time. Take Shelter got a lot of critical acclaim, and Mud has been receiving much more mainstream attention. I wouldn’t be surprised if pretty soon studios started offering bigger projects to Nichols. Unlike some indie filmmakers, though, Nichols has proved that he could handle the transition, and bring some much-needed thoughtfulness to studio films.
But enough about Jeff Nichols. Matthew McConaughey has been receiving a large amount of critical praise for this role. It’s been an interesting couple of years for him. Starting with… well, oddly enough, I guess Magic Mike, McConaughey has really been turning things around. Once an endearingly stupid romcom lead, he’s been appearing in more and more dramatic roles, demonstrating that, in fact, he is a very capable and talented actor. It would be remiss to not talk at least a little about his performance as Mud. All I can say is that he has definitely earned his acclaim and career reinvention.
Personally, though, I think Tye Sheridan deserves the most credit. This is only his second film appearance after Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, and at sixteen he held his amongst McConaughey, Witherspoon, Sam Shepherd, and even (even) Michael Shannon. Yes. Even Michael Shannon. Child actors are so hit-or-miss, but Nichols really lucked out with both Sheridan and Lofland. Sheridan had much more to do, though, so I focus on him. Ellis’ situation is familiar to every viewer. Even if you have a happy family life and your parents aren’t splitting up, odds are that you know someone who has been through what Ellis is going through. Maybe most of us don’t get wrapped up with dangerous fugitives and violent killers, but at the core of this film is a very simple story about a boy whose worldview is shattered, and who is now struggling to find evidence of true undying love. It’s quite touching, but regardless of Nichols’ writing and direction, if Ellis has been miscast, this movie probably would have been awful. Sheridan ably captures all of the emotional weight of the situation without ever seeming melodramatic. Kid’s got a bright future ahead of him, I reckon.
All in all, Mud is a superb film. Nichols’ track record as writer and director remains unscathed. With this film he takes the sober tone of his previous films and imbues it with carefully calculated doses of humor and spirit. When these elements are coupled with an excellent ensemble cast, featuring especially good performances from Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, Mud leaves little to be desired.