REVIEW: “Mud”

MUD posterAfter just two feature films Jeff Nichols has become a director whose name instantly attracts my attention. His first film “Shotgun Stories” was a real and gritty look at rural southern life. His next movie “Take Shelter” was a powerful and potent look at mental illness and its effects on a working class family. It was pure brilliance and one of the best films of the last decade. Now he’s back with another slice of southern gothic storytelling. This time he teams up with some marquee stars and a slightly larger budget to give us “Mud”. But does a little more cash and bigger names equal success or does it take away from the down-to-earth filmmaking that Nichols is known for?

Let me get this out of the way, “Mud” is a scintillating piece of cinema. It’s a coming-of-age story. It’s a thriller. It’s a skewed romance. It’s a film that dabbles in several areas yet it all comes together in a gripping story full of life and grit. Nichols takes us to a world that I was mesmerized by and lost in – a world that many people don’t know exists today. He also gives us characters that interest us and that we care about. He raises the stakes and wraps them up in a mystery that we can sink our teeth into. In other words he gives us the experience that is at the heart of why we go to the movies.

Jeff Nichols started writing the story for “Mud” around 2000 and it’s clearly a personal project for him. Many critics have called this film a modern-day “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and for good reason. Nichols was particularly influenced by the Mark Twain classics. But what makes this movie stand out is the familiarity that Nichols has for the locations and the people he is depicting. The reason we buy into the story is because of the sharp reality that we see through his constantly moving camera. Like me, Nichols is an Arkansas native and the stunning detail and unashamed portrayal of a vanishing river subculture and small town life was as honest of a depiction as I’ve ever seen on screen.

It’s here in the south Arkansas delta, that 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) calls home. His family is part of a low income river community that works the waterways as a source of income. He and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are adventurous sorts. One day they take their boat out to an island and discover a bigger boat left in the trees after a recent flood. They claim it as their own but there’s one problem. Someone has beaten them to it, namely a mysterious stranger who goes by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Ellis and the more cautious Neckbone develop a friendship with Mud but soon find out he’s a man of many secrets.

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Sheridan, Lofland, & McConaughey

The movie builds itself around the mystery of Mud. Who is he, where did he come from, and why is he hiding on the island? Is he harmless? Is he dangerous? McConaughey and Nichols combine to create a fascinating character and I was thoroughly intrigued by him as they peeled back layer after layer. McConaughey seems to have reinvented himself over the past two years and his career has taken a better turn. But despite his recent good work, nothing he has done matches the phenomenal performance he gives here. For my money this is his very best work and I found myself always anxious for his next scene.

Just as impressive is young Tye Sheridan as the sensitive, tough, and vulnerable Ellis. I loved watching Sheridan navigate his scenes of discovery, revelation, and heartbreak like a seasoned professional. There was never a moment in the film that seemed too big for him and he felt right at home in his character’s shoes. This is really his story and the movie wouldn’t have worked without his amazing performance.

Nichols also puts together an incredible supporting cast loaded with personal favorites of mine. Reese Witherspoon plays a beautiful stranger who arrives in town and who may have deeper connections to Mud. She’s very good here and her name adds some pop to the cast but it’s a fairly small role. Sam Shepard is great as a surly old river hermit who prefers to be left alone. A Jeff Nichols favorite, Michael Shannon also appears in a small but well acted role as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian. But I want to single out a terrific supporting performance by the underrated character actor Ray McKinnon. He plays Ellis’s father and it’s a much more layered role that you might at first think. This is a character that’s right in McKinnon’s comfort zone and he shines particularly in what I thought were two of the movie’s more stirring and emotional scenes.

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Matthew McConaughey as Mud

While “Mud” is a deep south thriller filled with mystery and intrigue I was surprised to find a deeper reoccurring theme that penetrates the entire story. It’s really a movie about love. Throughout the film we see the ravaged emotions, fractured relationships, and heartbroken cynicism left in the wake of failed love. A big part of the film focuses on Ellis’s confusion over what he believes love to be and the harsher reality that he witnesses all around him. It’s sad to watch him innocently cling to his idyllic perception of love. In fact, every character in the film has some dealings with the painful side of love. The way Nichols weaves this throughout his narrative is simply genius.

There are only a couple of things which keep me from calling this the perfect movie. One centers around the Neckbone character. Young Jacob Lofland delivers a nice performance especially considering he had no acting experience. My problem with his character isn’t in his work but surprisingly in Nichols’s writing. Neckbone is a potty mouth and Nichols uses that as a source of humor. But he constantly goes back to it over and over through the entire movie. First of all I don’t particularly find a cursing kid that funny, but beating the same drum over and over was a drag. There’s also a big sequence at the end that is actually satisfying although it’s a bit jarring. It delivers in the end but it did feel a little out of place with the rest of the movie.

That said, it’s clear to me that “Mud” once again verifies that Jeff Nichols is a master craftsman who uses his southern roots and appreciation for classic filmmaking to tell stories rich with vigor and authenticity. “Mud” is an atmospheric and evocative film that takes a southern fried look at adolescence. It’s nestled in the reality of trot lines, cottonmouths, Piggly Wigglys, and Big Banjos while never coming across as clichéd or condescending. It’s a part of the world not far from where I live which makes the movie’s treatment all the more satisfying. “Mud” was my most anticipated movie of 2013 and my expectations were through the roof. Thanks to Jeff Nichols for exceeding those expectations with what will surely be one of the year’s best films.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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48 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Mud”

  1. Been hearing nothing but great things about this. Great review man, I agree, Nichols is a great director, I’ll watch anything he does at this point. Can’t wait to check this one out.

    • Thanks. Definitely see this. I can’t get it out of my mind. It just good classic storytelling that perfectly utilizes what makes motion pictures so enjoyable. Brilliant film!

    • It’s absolutely brilliant. As I mentioned in the review, its such a healthy dose of classic filmmaking and it features some amazing performances. Love it!

  2. Great review bro. The cast makes this movie so much better just by putting their hearts and souls into these fully-dimensional characters. Some of it is a bit over-stuffed with too much context and exposition, but still kept me glued as to what the hell is going to happen next with these characters that I care so much about.

    • Thanks man. I was really swept away by the whole thing. Like I mentioned, I’m only a few miles away from this dying southern subculture and the way it’s realized here by Nichols is amazing.

  3. Woo hoo! Glad this lives up to your expectations Keith! I wish I could compare notes with you, alas the snow storm kept me from seeing it 😦 I’ll be renting this for sure though.

    • Awesome! Since I’m an Arkansas guy the movie really hit close. I don’t live or work in this river subculture but the small town depiction is right on. It’s such a well done film in that regard. But I also think Jeff Nichols is a great storyteller in the classic vein. Hope you enjoy it. Would love to hear your thoughts on it!

    • Shotgun Stories is well worth your time. I’m with you 100% on Take Shelter. I love that film. One of my favorites of that year too. Mud is another great one from Nichols. And being an Arkansas guy, I really recognize the authenticity on screen.

  4. Nice review mate and I’m glad it lived up to your expectations, I know you were really looking forward to this. I just hope it gets a release near me. It’s the kind of film that my local cinema probably wouldn’t show unfortunately.

    • I know. Not certain what kind of wider release it will end up getting. As I’ve said, one of the key factors for me is the realistic setting it portrays and my proximity to it. Nichols really recreates a culture than many don’t know exists. I mean I live only about 60 miles from where it takes place. It’s a different world than mine but its one I’m familiar with and Mud really gets it right.

  5. Fantastic review bro. Great to see you rate this so highly. I’m a big fan of Nichols’ work as you know. Can’t wait to see it.

    You reckon this is McConaghey’s best work? Thats really saying something. He has been my favourite actor over the last year with the brave roles he has tackled. I’m evenore intrigued at that thought.

    • Thanks man. I really do think this may be McConaughey’s best work. He’s perfectly cast and his performance seems perfect for the setting and tone of the movie. It’s not too flashy or too big. But he’s surrounded by some great work as well. It’s such a stellar cast. But as I’ve told others, another reason this works so well for me is because this place it depicts and where it was filmed isn’t too many miles down the road from me. It’s a subculture that many people doesn’t know exist but Nichols really brings it to life.

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  7. I just got done seeing this and writing about it. Once again your analysis and writing are inspiring. I waited to read this until I had seen it myself and I would agree with you except I’ll take the extra step. I think it is a five star film. I did not notice “Neckbone” to be particularly potty mouthed, but I may be blinded by my contact with young folks in the real world. The difference seems to be that Ellis was raised by a pair of loving if disappointing parents, and all poor Neckbone has is his pig of an Uncle to emulate. The Uncle is well meaning and ultimately redemptive, but don’t forget, right as we meet him, a disgusted girlfriend is lecturing the boys to be nothing like him.

    • Thanks for the great comments. Really means a lot. LOVE hearing you loved this film. It’s my favorite of the year so far. I get what you’re saying about Neckbone. I guess my objections is that is so often played for laughs. It became an eye-rolling thing for me.

      This movie was filmed about 60 miles away from where I live. It’s stunning how true the depiction of this dying subculture is in this film. I can’t wait to see it again.

      Again and as always, thanks so much for the kind words and encouragement!

    • It’s phenomenal. Nichols is really establishing himself as a great director and the fact that he’s from my small, barely recognized state is exciting.

  8. Fantastic review of what sounds like an incredible film. I am really looking forward to seeing this. It has just opened out here but frustratingly none of the cinemas nearby are showing it. Totally agree on McConaughey, he is definitely taking on far more interesting roles such as in The Paperboy and Bernie. Good to see him branching out, not just taking those terrible rom-com pay cheques that he so easily could.

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  12. Nicely written! And, again, completely agreed, just as I did with your thoughts on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

    Even thought Mud isn’t really his movie, it’s still astonishing to me how quickly Matthew McConaughey has changed his image. It’s taken him three years to become one of Hollywood’s heavy hitting character actors.

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