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Mud

Reviewed by Adam Gallimore.

Director Jeff Nichols
Length 130 mins
Certificate 12A / PG-13
Rating ********--
Filmmaking: 4  Personal enjoyment: 4

Photo from the article Mud, Jeff Nichols’ third feature after apocalyptic drama Take Shelter (2011) and the little-seen Shotgun Stories (2007), excels as a quixotic blend of Southern Gothic, mystery thriller and Bildungsroman. Nichols has been quick to acknowledge the influence of Mark Twain on his work, and Mud most clearly evokes the author’s recurrent, familiar themes of male kinship as well as the sense of the natural beauty and economic hardship of the American South.

Happening upon a boat suspended above the forest on a small island in the Mississippi River, teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) immediately claim it as a perfect - if precariously balanced - treehouse of their very own. However, they soon find it to be presently occupied, meeting a mysterious fugitive who calls himself “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). The eponymous figure’s past is initially knowingly hazy, relating to a violent act in defence of a girl named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but Ellis quickly forms a bond with Mud, finding solace from his disruptive family life.

Mud is a slow-burner, less intense than Nichols' previous efforts but maintaining thematic focus and emotional depth. The film is more interested in character than plot but also concerned with the ways in which an individual’s attributes are uncovered and challenged by others. Reminiscent of early-David Gordon Green (George Washington, All the Real Girls), Mud is heavy on atmosphere and preoccupied by a sense of post-industrial decline. Ellis and Neckbone are boys brought up with few possessions and little exposure to people, places or ideas outside of their small Arkansas community. It is for this reason that they cling to the boat - and other objects - with such tenacity; Mud shares this instinct, imbuing his shirt - his one major possession - with almost-mythic significance, and asks the boys to supply the provisions for his survival and, optimistically, his escape.

What is most striking about the interaction of the characters is how direct they are in their attempts to ascertain information from each other: questions are solicited in a straightforward manner and answers are provided with unswerving frankness, with barely a hint of deception or subterfuge between them. This is a mystery, not a noir, and as we edge closer to the truth of Mud’s backstory it becomes clear that it is not as significant - nor as satisfying - as his burgeoning paternal relationship with Ellis.

McConaughey continues his stellar revival as an actor in relatively small-scale movies (see last year’s Bernie, Killer Joe and Magic Mike), playing his character as both victim of circumstance and manipulator of innocents, a man of inherent, charismatic duality even when - inevitably - his shirt comes off. But it is Tye Sheridan who stands out most notably with a performance of great depth, capturing the complexity and confusion of youth as he finds both a new father - more compassionate than his own - and love, in the form of a local girl May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). His idealistic perception of romance is echoed by his faith in Mud’s relationship with Juniper, a woman who bears striking similarity to both his high school crush and his own mother (an under-used Sarah Paulson).

Despite some minor narrative missteps towards the end as it veers towards melodrama, altering both the tone and trajectory of the film, Mud captures the beauty and danger of both its characters and its locations. Less lurid or pulpy than The Paperboy (2012) yet not as epic in scope as The Place Beyond the Pines (2013), Mud is an analogous story of family relations, young love, and innocence lost that proves both consistently intriguing and emotionally rewarding.

This review was published on June 23, 2013.

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