Mud is the one movie I wanted to see this spring, and of course I missed it. Which is why this review is several months too late.
Fourteen year-old Ellis is a romantic in a hard-scrabble life that offers him none. He lives on a houseboat on a river in Arkansas, his family supported by the the fish his father catches, that he and Ellis sell in town. When we meet Ellis, the impending breakup of his parent’s marriage threatens his way of life.
Ellis is not concerned. While pursuing his first kiss, Ellis and his friend, Neckbone, stumble across a fugitive (Mud) who needs their help. Like Pip in Great Expectations, Ellis obliges. With the reluctant assistance of Neckbone, he staves off disillusionment by devoting himself to Mud’s reunion with the love of his life.
Director Jeff Nichols is understated and matter-of-fact in the way he portrays a small town that prosperity has passed by. He neither ennobles nor dramatizes the lower-class denizens, humanizing them as people pursuing life the best they can and allowing the story to shine through. He errs in creating a tone that is suitable for a Disney adventure, presumably to assure a family friendly offering. Mud is an engaging film. With a little more grit, it would be compelling.
Tye Sheridan as Ellis is a heart-felt knight errant and Jacob Lofland is utterly convincing as Ellis’s loyal and pragmatic follower, Neckbone. I would not be surprised to see both Lofland and Ray McKinnon (as Ellis’s Father) receive Oscar nods for supporting actor.
Sam Shepard is a bit too affable for a man who has never spoken to his neighbors. This I lay on Nichol’s direction. Shepard has been brilliant in the past as tough, lonely men. He could have easily shined here. As it is, we are more afraid of Ellis’s taciturn dad than we are of the hermit marine sniper or the fugitive.
Matthew McConaughey is competent playing himself. The rough, uneducated, river rat poetry of Mud’s dialogue is lost in McConaughey’s slick elocution. We would better understand Juniper’s dilemma if we could see Mud as he was surely intended: a simple man who thinks no more than three days ahead, and whose whole life’s ambition is to serve his love for Juniper. (I would have picked Christian Bale for this role)
Reece Witherspoon’s is spot-on as the beguiling and troubled Juniper, for whom Mud’s love is not quite enough enough even while she refuses to let it go. Her small part carries the heavy weight of convincing us that a man would ruin his life over her. Without this conviction, Mud’s dedication would be merely pathetic.
Ellis is navigating troubled waters in this coming of age story, in which no adult has a happy relationship. The real question is, who is going to grow up?
I give it a nice, solid “B”