Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two fourteen year old boys on summer vacation in their sleepy Arkansas town. Ellis sells fish out of the pick up truck of his world beaten father (Ray McKinnon), during his free time he explores the inlets of the local river using a small motor boat with his best friend Neckbone. One day, Ellis accompanies Neckbone to a small island where Neckbone shows him a large boat that has been deposited high in a tree's branches. Soon realizing that the boat has been home to someone very recently, the boys soon discover Mud. Mud and the boys forge a series of pacts by which the boys offer to gather supplies for Mud, who cannot go in to the local town for some mysterious reason. Soon it is revealed that Mud plans to reunite with his long lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and sail up the river, away from the authorities and a group of bounty hunters who are searching for him because of a slaying that Mud committed in order to protect her.
With his unkempt appearance, suspicious backstory, and lyrical musings about snake bits and evil spirits, it's easy to imagine a scenario where the character of Mud comes off as a grab bag of quirky traits met to endear, but lacking any type of "there" there. However, McConaughey invests the character with a sense of drive and determination that illuminates from his words and actions. Now freeded from rom-com movie jail, McConaughey has become one of our most interesting performers. His Texas drawl, good looks, and energy give him a magnetism where the audience and the characters around him can't help but form a sense of trust with him, for better or for worse. In "Killer Joe", William Freidkin's trailer park black comedy where he played a hit man doubling as a local sheriff, he seduced an entire family in to trusting him while carrying out abhorrent acts that destroyed the family but satisfied his own perverse sensibilities. In "Mud", characters like Neckbone and a neighbor of Ellis's played by Sam Shepard remain skeptical of Mud's ultimate plan, but feel an obligation to help him. The thoroughness by which Mud believes in his mission radiates on to others, and places a moral obligation on them to assist him in reconnecting with Juniper.
Nichols has captured the essence of Southern Gothic literature before. In his debut film, "Shotgun Stories" the shared bloodlines of two sets of brothers fathered by the same man but different mothers led to inevitable conflict and violence. Here too Nichols uses the sleepy lives of his characters to juxtapose the complex nature of what fathers and sons owe to one another in a culture that seems at least a couple decades removed from the present.
Ellis like his father, believes in love. Contrast this with Neckbone and his uncle who use instructional books in the hopes of getting their "tip wet" with as many women as possible. Early on Neckbone finds a stash of dirty magazines in the boat. Excited, he pages through them frantically as Ellis remains preoccupied with other tasks.
Seeing the failure of his parents' marriage, due in part to his father's inability to provide for his family, Ellis begins to see Mud as a surrogate father in his own right. Unlike his biological father, "Mud" will do literally anything for his love. This uncompromising devotion rubs off on young Ellis who more than once enters in to fist fights in which he is clearly overmatched, first with a jock who is groping an older girl at a local store and then with a man who is trying to coerce information from Juniper about Mud's whereabouts. In the first instance, Ellis's bold action impresses the girl and they share a kiss days later at an outdoor party. Despite the girl being four years older than him, she says "yes" when Ellis asks her to to be his girlfriend.
The best scene in the film comes when Ellis's idealism is tested, and he is forced to accept the fleeting nature of young love and how the most powerful sensation in one's own mind can mean little to the person who is the object of it. The moment mirrors a point in Mud's own plight where he is required to question the endurance of Juniper's devotion. It's Nichols exploration of the pitfalls of boundless adoration that most succeed in "Mud." Well that and the effortless injections of comedy that Nichols weaves throughout the screenplay. Michael Shannon steals every scene that he's in as Neckbone's, mellowed out uncle and caretaker.
"Mud" is not a perfect film. The conclusion with its hardboiled crime elements feel out of place with what has transpired prior. It's too violent and the way in which key characters avoid their demise is a little too deus ex machina-y for a film that developed so naturally throughout its first two hours.
Still, Mud succeeds as a coming of age story that forces us to recall our now seemingly naive crushes. Tye Sheridan is clearly a child actor who could make "the leap", similar to Jake Gyllenhaal or Leo Dicaprio, and turn in to a leading man in a few more years. Furthermore, I'll continue to eagerly anticipate any future films that Nichols sets in the deep South. His exploration of the twenty first century south often has an extraterrestrial vibe because of the lack of any modern technology in the proceedings and his sparsely populated pastoral landscapes. It's just such a relief to see a film that's not set in the suburbs or Toronto doubling as NYC.