Writer-director Jeff Nichols furthers his preoccupation with the economic and ideological decline of the American South, amidst other questions, in his minimally titled coming-of-age drama, Mud. Refining both the technique and the thematic concerns present in his debut film, Shotgun Stories, as well as his follow-up, Take Shelter, the thirty-four year olds’ third feature, also his best, recounts a tale of lost love and shattered innocence against an iconic American backdrop. With a rock solid cast led by Matthew McConaughey at the apex of his career reinvention, Mud is the kind of small scale, character driven drama one rarely sees out of the States any more, and cements Nichols as one of his country’s most significant independent auteurs.
The story of Mud is told through the eyes Ellis (Tye Sheridan; The Tree of Life), an impressionable fourteen year old who lives with his parents in a houseboat on the Mississippi river. Early one morning, Ellis sneaks away with his best friend Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) to a small, lush island in the centre of the river. There, they find an old motor boat that’s become stuck in a tree after a storm. And living in that boat, they find a man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey; Magic Mike). Wanted by the law after murdering the abusive former lover of his on-again off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon; This Means War), Mud’s one shot at being reunited with his beloved lies in getting the boat in the water. But with local law enforcement as well as the personal militia of his victim’s vindictive family closing in, he’ll need the two boy’s help to make it happen.
An Arkansas native, Nichols is no stranger to the kinds of small Southern towns in which his films take place; indeed, the genuine cadence with which he captures such settings has become a signature element to his work. One senses the sincerity of his affection for these places; not just for the murky beauty of the Mississippi (photographed sublimely by cinematographer Adam Stone), but for the beat-up community that has sprouted up around it, seen by us, like Ellis, from the back of the family truck. Yet Nichols is no blind idealist. Even as the boys plays hooky helping Mud, Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon; Footloose, and Sarah Paulson; Martha Marcy May Marlene) are faced with the loss of the family home; the romantic myth of simple, small town life confronted by grim capitalist reality.
The Mississippi setting also strongly calls to mind the works of iconic Southern novelist Mark Twain, whose quintessential stories are an obvious influence here. While the faded American dream – reflected in the washed out colours of the supermarket parking lot and pay-by-night motel – remains a thematic concern throughout the film, it is more than anything a backdrop to the simpler, more intimate tale of one boy’s coming-of-age. Although Neckbone is sceptical, Ellis soon falls hard for Mud’s story, inspired by the fugitive’s rough-spun spirituality and unshakable faith in love, and driven by his own simply founded desire to “do right”, like all men should. Masculinity, and what it means to be a man, is another recurrent idea in Nichols’ work; in Mud, the weight of that very question is etched heavily across Ellis’ young face.
Of course, resting a film on the backs of child actors is always a risk, but neither Sheridan nor Lofland strike a single bogus note. Sheridan, in particular, earmarks himself as rising talent, capturing faultlessly the tumultuous mix of idealism, rebelliousness, bravado and uncertainty that comes with male adolescence. McConaughey, meanwhile, having shed his reputation as a rom-com hack with larger-than-life supporting roles in films like Bernie, Magic Mike and especially Killer Joe, reins things in considerably for Nichols’ picture, delivering what is undoubtedly the most nuanced and quite possibly best performance of his twenty year Hollywood career. Waxing lackadaisically about life and love, it’s not hard to understand why a boy like Ellis, wracked by the throes of young romance himself, would be so drawn in by the sun-scorched philosopher (particularly when his parents’ marriage is so rapidly disintegrating).
In a lot of ways, Mud draws us in as well. But unlike Ellis, we realise long in advance that his relationship with Juniper may not be the fairy tale love story he believes it to be. Mud is about the loss of innocence, and not all of it is Ellis’s. And, just as Nichols injects reality into the idyllic small town dream, so too does he eventually wake both boy and man from the grip of romantic delusion. Despite this, Mud is not a bleak film, but a hopeful one; its characters, although bruised and battered, end their journey wiser and more mature than they were when it began. Fittingly, the same is true of Nichols, a first-rate filmmaker with an immeasurable future ahead of him.