Written & Directed by Jeff Nichols
When I was growing up as an impressionable young man, my summer days were often filled with long hours at the ball fields, playing baseball or watching my brothers play. Whichever it was, I always seemed to end up playing in the dirt, never getting the opportunity to really play in the mud, for if there was mud from a summer storm, there were no games. Other kids will have other stories, but that’s mine and I’m sticking to it. There was some putt-putt and summer blockbusters mixed in there as well, with R-rated films being a treat from my grandmother who would buy us the tickets and pick us up later. I suppose I lost some of my innocence then, with the exposure to the violence of those films. But for me it was all spectacle. For Ellis and Neckbone in Jeff Nichols’ (Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter) latest film, Mud, the loss of innocence was much more real; and the rain fell enough for them to dirty themselves in the mud of an Arkansas summer.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live on a river in rural Arkansas, spending their days messing around in the woods and on the water. Ellis’ father makes his living by the water, catching and selling fresh fish; his family living on a shanty houseboat, moored on the shoreline. When the two young boys venture out into the open water to discover a small island on the river, they soon discover a boat, stuck up in the trees from the last flood. They claim it as their own, but soon find a man, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), has been living there, waiting on his lifetime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come back to him. The boys befriend the forlorn loner, but soon find out that all he says may not be the truth, and some love may be lost along the way too.
An obvious coming-of-age tale, Ellis quickly grows up when thrown into the difficult position of being a friend to Mud. It is the lessons Ellis learns and his experiences throughout the film which fuel the narrative to its emotional ending. Jeff Nichols explores various themes throughout the film, but an over-arching central focus would appear to the be the error and imperfection of the human relationship, as the boys begin to venture into manhood, making their symbolic first trip out onto the open water (“My dad would kill me” says Ellis). We also see a changing of the guards, as one way of life is left behind for another. The archaic way of life on the river gives way to a more modern, urban way of living. The archaic notion of chivalry gives way to a new definition of true love and romance. These are not growing extinct, but rather evolving to meet the modern age of life and Nichols wonderfully intertwines these musings with the gripping situation of Mud and Juniper’s relationship.
The film’s treatment of love runs the gambit, but is handled quite well in all occurrences. Women, however, are not always shone with the brightest light in the film, and that may be seen as a blight by some, but I might argue that their strength and independence is buried beneath a nostalgic view of chivalry. We are told by Ellis’ father that his mother is set on destroying their way of life; the mother is made out to be the villain. However, it’s her love for them that is the saving grace, while his father remarks “I don’t care what you do,” in a moment of complete apathy towards his son. Juniper is shown as weak to men’s attraction to her, and resorts to crawling back to Mud time after time. Yet, her strength is seen in her tenderness towards Ellis and ultimately her independence found at the end of the film. Even Ellis’ relationship with the older classmate May Pearl provides correlation to his journey into the open waters and realization that all may not be as it seems. Ultimately it’s the pure friendship of Ellis and Neckbone that remains the core of the film.
With relationships at the heart of making the film what it is, the performances from the ensemble cast must live up to the words on the page in order to bring them to life, and they do, led by the lead performance of the young Tye Sheridan. McConaughey is also stunning in the title role, bringing an ominous sense of tender poignancy mixed with menace. The beautiful cinematography of the simple life of these rural people creates a nice connection to the story as well, evoking a Terrence Malick sense of rural beauty mixed with the doom of human nature. No surprise given Malick collaborator Sarah Green also produces the film. Perhaps Nichols’ greatest achievement, however, is that, despite the obvious confliction, the film is able to convey a certain level of idealism in its deconstruction of the idealistic naivete found within Ellis and his romantic outlook on relationships, especially as the central friendship between he and Neckbone remains unwavering throughout the entirety of the film.