At the heart of ‘Mud’ is a coming of age tale about adolescence, innocence and love. This was surprising to me, and quite moving to be honest. I didn’t expect something so honest and ‘simple’ to come from a film seemingly so much darker. That isn’t to say that ‘Mud’ doesn’t have thrilling elements, and it certainly reaches levels of darkness, but at its core it is something softer, kinder and more delicate.
It is richer than I expected.
‘Mud’ tells the story of fourteen year-old Ellis, a young boy living on a river in Arkansas. His family is riddled with turmoil as his parents fight in the open air and make plans to separate. Ellis and his friend Neckbone escape their homelives by venturing down river to a small island where Neckbone found a boat in a tree that the two plan to use as a clubhouse of sorts. The problem is that the boat is occupied by a strange man named Mud who is awaiting the arrival of his girlfriend, Juniper. He cannot leave the island, for reasons he leaves a mystery, but strikes a friendship with the boys, who agree to bring him food in exchange for the boat.
While the main draw to the film is of course the mystery surrounding Mud’s backstory, and don’t get me wrong because it certainly is exciting and worth sticking around for, the real soul of the film comes from the development of Ellis and the unveiling of his emotional development. As Ellis reflects on his homelife, his parent’s marriage and the threat to lose his home, the girl he thinks he loves and the realization that love is not as easy as you want it to be, and then having him live vicariously through Mud, soaking in his stories and falling in love with his charm and the ideals he represents, he become drawn to Ellis and completely enwrapped in his tale. While Mud’s story may be the flashy central point in the story, it is Ellis’s tale that haunts us long after the credits have finished rolling.
I’m excited for where Jeff Nichols’ career is going to lead him. I have yet to see ‘Shotgun Stories’, but both ‘Mud’ and ‘Take Shelter’ are remarkable films that show so much unique vision and potential for greatness. I see a masterpiece in his near future. ‘Mud’ is through provoking and atmospheric, using the river and the light to create such charged appeal. Even the running length feels organic thanks to the way that Nichols worked out every detail.
I would like to take a second to address Hollywood’s ridiculous bias against young male actors. All this attention on Matthew McConaughey’s career revival and his performance here being a ‘career best’ (he’s very good, surprisingly) only masks the fact that this film is not his. Mud, while a title character, is a supporting one. This is purely Ellis’s story, and young Tye Sheridan carries this film with such authentic grace. In fact, both he and Jacob Lofland are better than McConaughey here. If Ellis had been a female and had been played by someone like Hailee Steinfeld then you can bet your bottom dollar someone would be trying to push for a category fraud campaign to get her a Supporting Actress Oscar nomination. Sadly, no one will do that for Sheridan, despite the fact that his performance is achingly effective. He handles everything with such natural enlightenment. You can feel him embrace Mud with a sense of adolescent wonderment, capitalizing on Ellis’s innocence and naivety and yet as he discovers the nasty truth regarding love and life he begins to melt away and become hardened. Contrasting his father’s jilted views with Mud’s fantastical coloring to strike an accurate balance is beautifully played and honestly felt.
It’s just a beautifully honed performance.
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I give this a solid A. It isn’t a masterpiece, but it’s on the verge. It has a strong voice and Nichols is certainly one to watch. As far as Oscar is concerned, I can’t see this getting much traction despite deserving to. McConaughey could snag a few critics prizes, but uncertainty about his category placement coupled with upcoming roles in more Oscar friendly material (‘Dallas Buyers Club’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’) will mean he’s forgotten for this performance.