5/23/2013 - A man (or, rather, two boys) goes on a journey and a stranger comes to town in Mud, a coming-of-age drama full of smart writing and solid performances.
This is the kind of movie you’d want to take your kid to if you weren’t afraid your kid would pick up too many tips on petty thievery and get nightmares from the fistfights and shoot-outs. Sure, there are the 14-year-old boys with imperfect guardians and an almost child-like wonder at a mysterious boat that is wedged in a tree, but then there’s the violence — explicit and implied — and the sense that something terrible and bloody is about to happen. It’s like Tom Sawyer or Hardy Boys meets the TV show Justified.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are high school freshmen, perhaps a bit small for their ages, who live on (in Ellis’ case) or near (Neckbone) the river in Arkansas. Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson) are going through some never-quite-explained troubles; Neckbone lives with a ladies-man uncle (Michael Shannon) who makes a living gathering shellfish from the Mississippi. Perhaps in part because of a desire to escape these less-than-ideal situations (at least for a little while), the boys latch on to the adventure promised by an abandoned boat that Neckbone and his uncle find. The boat is wedged in the branches of a tree, washed there during a flood. They’re not sure how, but Ellis and Neckbone plan to make it their own.
But when they check out the boat, they find that they aren’t the only people who know about it. Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has been living in the boat. The boys run into the shabby-looking Mud, who says that while he may be a hobo he certainly isn’t a bum, and also, he plans to keep the boat. He makes them a deal: if they’ll help him restore it, he’ll give them the pistol he’s carrying.
The boys agree to the arrangement, but when police start showing Mud’s photo and “Wanted” poster around they realize they might be in a more dangerous situation than they thought. It’s not just law enforcement looking for Mud; Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a woman who recently arrived at the local hotel, is looking for him, as are shady-seeming men from Texas.
Mud is that rare kind of movie that never sounded particularly interesting to me before I saw it but pulled me in and held my attention once it started. Its characters are remarkably well-crafted and true-to-life. Any Southern-set movie about small-town life (including, in the background, a plot thread about how life along the river is changing) has the potential to devolve into caricature. Mud keeps its collection of oddballs feeling like people, not types. McConaughey’s Mud so easily could have become goofy or over-the-top, but some combination of his performance and the way the character was built keeps Mud from seeming too ridiculous or from turning into a noble savage type.
Ellis and the way the movie is pretty much consistently from his perspective might be the key to why Mud works. The character feels like a real kid, specifically, like a real 14-year-old who still has a good amount of boy in him (especially in how he trusts people and is so wounded when they disappoint) but also is becoming more of a man. There is a nice subplot about Ellis’ wooing of an older high school girl. A lot is going on in this storyline — we see Ellis’ guilelessness, his desire to get right the things his parents are getting wrong, his teenage-boy pride at having a girlfriend and maybe even his class limitations. For someone so young, Sheridan gives a surprisingly nuanced performance.
Mud is the kind of meaty, smart story-telling that can feel in short supply during blockbuster season. B+
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, Mud is two hours and 10 minutes long and distributed by Roadside Attractions.