Jeff Nichols is fully in tune with nature and how people relate to it, reminiscent of certain Australian filmmakers in the 1970s. The feature films he has made so far are pure pieces of modern Americana, though, reflecting a sensibility that is fiercely independent, no matter the varied landscapes that seep into the characters who inhabit them.
By "Americana," I mean a dictionary definition of the word: "Things associated with the culture and history of America, esp. the United States." Mud, Nichols' latest film, in no way trumpets American culture as superior to any other; it is, however, firmly rooted in the time and place of its very particular setting, namely, rural Arkansas in the Southern United States.
The story revolves around two teenage boys who are edging into adulthood but aren't there quite yet. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are filled with the energy of youth and the brash curiosity of adolescence. They freely and fearlessly explore the fecund woods that surround their rural community, including the muddy banks of the Mississippi River. One day they see a boat resting in the branches of a tree, far off the ground. An adult might ponder the fragility of life -- surely the boat's owners were victims of a flood -- but the boys view it as a cool, potential clubhouse, and vow to make it their own.
Upon returning, Ellis and Neckbone learn that someone else has claimed the boat. He's tall and lean and mysterious, and exudes an air of restrained menace; he's the kind of man who might turn on you quick as look at you. The boys do not shy away, revealing a confidence in their ability to take care of themselves.
Their instincts are (basically) correct. The man, who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey), provides a reasonable explanation for why he's taken possession of the boat -- he's in trouble with the law and waiting to meet up with long-time love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) -- and enlists the boys to help him with a plan he sketches out.
It's good timing for Ellis and Neckbone; their home lives are far from idyllic. Ellis has learned that his parents (the always terrific Ray McKinnon and reliable Sarah Paulson) are splitting up, and his mom wants to move out of their ram-shackle riverboat home and into town. Neckbone lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who has some unusual ideas about raising children. So they agree to help Mud, as much out of boredom and curiosity as anything else, and the consequences of their decision quickly spread outward, like a rock skipped across a river.
The story plays out largely through the eyes and ears of Ellis, who is in his early teen years, and is still figuring out who, or what, he wants to be. Does he want to be like his harsh-tongued and often frustrated father? Or his mother, who is seeking more security and a more traditional home life? Or Galen, who is very much his own, angry man? Or the crusty old man who lives across the river, Tom (Sam Shepherd), who lives an extremely solitary life? Or Mud, who makes being penniless and wanted by the law somehow look dangerously attractive?
Mud is not a conventional coming-of-age tale, in which an angel and a devil fight for the soul of a young person who must choose good or evil. Nor does it extol the idea of leaving home for the romance of the open road, or advocate moving to the city as the only smart decision for rural youth. Instead, it depicts people who have taken a variety of paths to adulthood. Some have achieved success and enjoy a measure of satisfaction with their lot in life, while others are still searching for the happiness that eludes them.
Nichols carves his characters from reality. As but one example, Mud has visions, but they don't have the profound depth of those experienced by, say, Michael Shannon's character in Take Shelter, Nichols' previous film. Mud's visions are both more mundance and more pitiable, because he's been chasing the fulfillment of them for so many years without quite getting there.
Like the Mississippi River, emotions and events in Mud rise and fall. Sometimes they come in a rush, but more often they ebb and flow gently. so the temperament of the film doesn't reach the apocalyptic heights expressed in Take Shelter. Still, the range of personalities expressed by the characters leaves open the possibility that someone might be left stranded, like the boat in the woods.
Tye Sheridan, who played the younger brother in Terence Malick's The Tree of Life, embodies Ellis with surprising strength and quiet confidence; sometimes it's stretched thin over a valley of fragile nerves, but he rarely strikes a false note. Jacob Lofland is also quite good as his running buddy Neckbone, who appears to have fewer possibilities in life than Ellis, but never holds that against his childhood friend.
Matthew McConaughey continues his recent string of superior performances, giving Mud a tasty edge that connects most of the dots while allowing the rest to be filled in later. It's a supporting role, but it's substantial, and he doesn't overplay his hand. Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, and Sam Shepherd all deliver exquisitely good work, as do Sarah Paulson and Joe Don Baker. Reese Witherspoon erases her star persona to play the faded lover.
Key members of the crew, such as cinematographer Adam Stone, editor Julie Monroe, and production designer Richard A. Wright, contribute excellent work, while David Wingo's musical score is evocative and powerful.
Like its lead character Ellis, Mud is modest, surprisingly strong, and quietly confident as it unfolds, venturing far into territories that are rarely visited in American cinema.