Matthew McConaughey’s string of brilliance continues in Jeff Nichols’ Mark Twain-inspired tale.
Mark Twain always had a way with words, language really. He was America’s own Shakespeare, with uncanny wit and a fanciful knack for satire and prose. Religion, politics – it didn’t matter; no subject was off limits. His greatest contribution to literature may be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, a novel, mind you, that uses the N-word frequently; to an extent that if he could, Spike Lee would travel back in time and engage in a battle of wits, totally negating the fact that Twain was a strong supporter of emancipation.
Now we arrive at Mud, a film with an ambiguous little title – seriously, a movie that isn’t about the dirty brown stuff. Jeff Nichols’ third feature, following Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, has his biggest starring cast to date beginning with Matthew McConaughey and an actress who has been in the news for all the wrong reasons, Reese Witherspoon. They may be the biggest names on the marquee that will get butts in seats, but for this modern-day homage to some of the classic works of Mark Twain the real stars are a couple of 14-year-olds, including one that goes by the name of “Neckbone.” Now if that doesn’t sound like a character from a Twain tale, I don’t know what does.
The protagonists of Mud might as well be named Tom and Huckleberry. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loffland) are a pair of Arkansas teens from the sticks that frequently go out on little adventures, brandishing Walkie-Talkies as they meet up and take a motorboat out to remote locations on the Mississippi to explore outlying areas. They don’t encounter a runaway slave but they do meet a fugitive calling himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey) on an isolated island. And just when you think the Twain comparisons are about to end, Nicholas throws in a supporting character by the name of Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard). His name served as the real-life inspiration for Huckleberry Finn.
Just like it was difficult to discern the time period of last year’s The Perks of the Being a Wallflower – falling somewhere between the late ‘80s/early ‘90s – Mud looks to transpire in the early ‘90s. Though it could range anywhere from the late 1980s to early 2000s. That’s based on the makes of cars and technology. Cell phones are nowhere to be found, but corded phones are featured (as it turns out director Nichols isn’t a fan of cellular devices). Considering that housing consists of trailer parks and ramshackle houseboats on the Mississippi, texting and streaming seems like a frivolous concern. More important is the Arkansas setting. Jeff Nichols’ third feature again serves as a time capsule of the American South, and the setting is one of distinguishing factors in establishing the mindset of the two teenage boys.
Ellis and Neckbone are best friends who love to explore the sights along the Mississippi. While investigating an uninhabited island, they come upon a boat lodged high in a tree, an apparent leftover from a flood long ago. A treehouse boat anchored in place between heavy limbs, that looks abandoned, is in fact a makeshift hideout for a man named Mud. Agreeable in nature to the two boys, he tells them he’s just waiting on the island for someone – his girlfriend, Juniper (Witherspoon). With no money to his name, Mud devises a plan, barter if you will, with the boys: food for rights to the boat. The boys agree with Ellis being the one more captivated by Mud’s notion of true love to his darling Juniper. He doesn’t even scoff at the notion that Mud is a fugitive on the lamb for murder.
Some will be perturbed that Mud is overlong – but not this writer. At 130 minutes, I had no problems with the pace. It is an effective coming-of-age tale, but with a number of subplots that are inconsequential to the main thread. We have the festering friction between Ellis’ parents, Ellis’ infatuation with a much older teenage girl, and the relationship between Neckbone and his uncle (Michael Shannon). Some of these threads could have been dropped, especially the last one, to make for a tighter narrative, but the meandering seems purposeful considering the boys love to take their skiff lazily down the Mighty Mississippi.
Mud is an enriching Southern drama that chronicles love in its many forms; Nichols’ third feature again shows the complexities that arise in the family dynamic, particularly a family that is barely able to keep its head above water financially. Matthew McConaughey may be the marquee attraction, but the real stars are the two boys. They bring so much to their characters that it was surprising to learn that their performances didn’t rely on improving dialogue, as is the case with most child actors. To see how Ellis’ interactions with Mud ultimately affect the world around him as well as his own maturation is an embolden stroke of simplicity and authenticity on the part of Nichols.
McConaughey is impressive in his role and he serves as the catalyst of the story, ultimately affecting Ellis and his impressions about love. Love is a powerful emotion with powerful consequences. From seeing his mother and father argue to his unrequited love for a high school senior, we share in Ellis’ experiences in how love affects him in positive and negative ways.
It’s been fascinating to watch Matthew McConaughey’s own maturation from playboy heartthrob to becoming an actor that takes on challenging material. Sure, he may be shirtless in films like Magic Mike and Killer Joe but these are films of a much higher quality than say Fool’s Gold. Mud continues the brilliant streak of roles for the Texas native. Apparently Nichols wrote the part specifically for McConaughey to play.
Still, the titular star character is second to the performance Tye Sheridan gives as Ellis. As the emotional core of the film he has the unenviable task of making us care about his being lovelorn. Jacob Loffland is equally credible as a 14-year old adventure-loving boy. He is also responsible for some of the film’s best comic relief moments, with his affinity for Penthouse magazines and boobs. Reese Witherspoon’s performance is short and understated, but her character recalls the film that jumpstarted her career to movie stardom (of course I mean the disturbing Red Riding Hood tale Freeway). For the I-thought-that-actor-was-dead moment is the appearance of Joe Don Baker. Yes, Mr. Walking Tall himself makes his presence known. Not bad for an actor whose last movie appearance was five years ago in the forgettable comedy Strange Wilderness.
If you can withstand a film that’s a little over two hours in length, keeping the fidgeting in your chair to a minimum, then you may find yourself falling in love with Mud. It has a simple story, but it is told with such dexterity from writer/director Jeff Nichols. Working with talented actors and great professionals behind the camera – Adam Stone’s Steadicam cinematography and David Wingo’s emotional score are to be applauded – the film ultimately asks a question that the audience is supposed to contemplate. That question is love: Is the belief in love better than the real thing?
Writer/Director: Jeff Nichols Notable Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Loffland, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker, Sarah Paulson
Portions of this review was featured in our 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival coverage.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!