What makes Mud such a wonderful movie is how everything about it is just a little bit… off. It’s about two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, who venture down the river and find a man on a deserted island living on a boat stuck in a tree. The man’s name is Mud, and he is determined to find the woman he loves, named Juniper, and rescue her from… I don’t know, herself? And Juniper’s father, who calls himself King, has tasked his son to hire a group of men to find Mud and kill him. And let’s not forget the man who lives by himself on a houseboat on the river who may or may not be Mud’s father and who may or may not by a former assassin.
Mud is a like a fairy tale, but the setting is so authentic and the acting is so naturalistic that you never really think about how odd it is while you watch it. And maybe that’s why it’s such a gripping movie; it seems familiar without seeming cliched. Writer-director Jeff Nichols is pulling from these archetypes we’ve known all of our lives and refashions them in updated and realistic ways.
Matthew McConaughey continues the most interesting career reinvention I can remember. He is superb as a man trying to rescue the woman he’s loved since he was a kid and Reese Witherspoon is wonderful as the woman who may not necessarily want to be saved (a similar theme playing out in your local multiplex in The Great Gatsby.) But all of the performances in Mud are fantastic. Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland don’t give the cutesy or needy performances children are prone to give. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are heartbreaking as Ellis’ parents on the verge of divorce. Sam Shepard is note-perfect as the loner that everybody knows of, but nobody really knows. Joe Don Baker (yes, Joe Don Baker! Where has he been?!) has only a few scenes as King, but he fills those scenes with a perfectly calibrated sense of casual menace that’s so in tune with the mood Nichols has created.
And the great Michael Shannon has a small part as Neckbone’s uncle, Galen. He’s introduced wearing a diving outfit and chasing after a woman who’s stormed out his house while The Beach Boys’ “Help Me, Rhonda” plays loudly from inside the house (Neckbone informs Ellis that Galen plays that song whenever he has a woman over and he’s not to enter. A lot more clever than putting a sock on the doorknob.) Later in the movie, Galen explains to Neckbone what the song “Help Me, Rhonda” is about, and it brings up another one of the themes in Mud, which is the ways men use women to prop up their self-image and the way those illusions are destroyed when reality comes crashing in:
Ellis’ father waxes poetic about living on the river and how the river provides and how Ellis and his mother have no appreciation for the work that he does, even though the houseboat the family lives on and from which the father provides is really owned by the wife; he’s not really providing, he’s been leeching off of her.
Or what about Mud, who has this idealized version of Juniper whom he has “protected” and actually killed for and will now save, and his entire motivation for EVERYTHING he does is for Juniper.
Mud’s “father” dropped out and became a hermit living on the river when his wife died while in childbirth.
And poor Ellis, caught in up Mud’s romantic notions of saving the “damsel in distress,” punches out an older high school student harassing a senior girl and, after they hang out for a night, proclaims this girl to be his “girlfriend,” even though he’s a freshman and she’s a senior and she really wants nothing to do with him. The men in Mud are living in a fairy tale; the women in Mud see things much more clearly and are just struggling and trying to survive.
Kudos to writer and director Jeff Nichols. The way he combines the grand and fantastical elements of the fairy tale with the elegance and craftsmanship of the best regional filmmaking is similar to what Behn Zeitlin did with last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild. That movie was one of the best movies of 2012. And Mud is one of the best movies of 2013.Follow @filmbyfelix