Concerning itself with a fugitive hiding out on an island on an Arkansas river and the boys who discover him, there could have been a great mystery at the heart of Mud. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) exude an adventurous spirit straight out of Tom Sawyer. After a boat trip to an island, they bump into a scruffy man who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He’s waiting for the love of his life for whom he killed a man to protect. Blinded by a subconscious desire that true love exists, Ellis feels compelled to help Mud.
The film, the third by Jeff Nichols, has a lot of potential but never reaches the heights of mystery and drama that would do justice to the cruel awakening these boys are in for. The problem lies in how long the film dwells on the naiveté of the two boys and how helpless they become when things fall apart around them. The two-hour-and-10-minute film could have used some tightening and less exposition for a more compelling experience.
As his parents edge toward divorce, Ellis can only watch from outside. The film even opens with him looking into the window of his home on the river as his mother (Sarah Paulson) sits with his father (Ray McKinnon) at the table. She tells him, “I just want to have a conversation,” as he hides behind a newspaper. Meanwhile, Ellis cannot help but feel swept away by Mud waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Mud casts an intriguing shadow early in the film, before he and the boys build a hasty bond that soon dampens out any ominous quality he might have had early in the film. Mud makes an almost ghostly first appearance as the boys investigate a boat stuck high in a tree on the island, noticing the detritus of someone having made a home of it. Boot prints inside and near the boat reveal a cross imprinted in the heel. On the way back to their skiff, they spy the figure of a man in the distant shore fishing. The boys approach with curiosity. Mud does not seem bothered and nonchalantly answers questions about the snake tattooed on his arm (he survived a bite) and the crosses in his boot heels (“To ward off evil spirits”).
After he shares his murderous tale of woe, the boys agree to help him with food while he waits. Soon enough, the boys get in over their heads, mostly driven by Ellis’ hopeful belief in reuniting the lovers. It makes for an intriguing coming of age into disillusionment fraught with danger. As Juniper appears in town, vengeful men soon follow.
The film has some brilliant moments of atmosphere throughout: that boat discovered perched in a tree, a crabby geezer living on the river who shoots snakes in the water (Sam Shepard), a slimy fellow with slicked-back hair seething for Mud’s dead body. The score and songs by David Wingo feel as transporting as the wide vistas across the waterway.
The acting is sincere, and, with the help of some false teeth, McConaughey will continue to get the hype for his continued acceptance of roles that subvert the romantic leading roles he used to take with assistance from his abs. The boys have great presence throughout. Lofland brings a serious, squinting levity to Neckbone, who has no parents beyond an uncle (a low-key Michael Shannon) who looks after him. Sheridan plays Ellis with an introspective melancholy. He carries his character’s yearning for affection with a light touch that shows just enough vulnerability.
Mud is not a bad film, just a bit anti-climactic, despite a dramatic shootout toward the end. Nichols maintained such a creepy sense of mystery throughout his previous film, Take Shelter (my review: ‘Take Shelter’ offers powerful entry into film’s recent history of schizophrenic cinema). I had hoped for a similar experience here. Instead, he has produced a rather straight-forward drama that dwells too much in repeating its theme only to build toward a sappy ending that overshadows its notion that “true love” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Mud is rated PG-13 and runs 130 minutes. It opened in South Florida at most major multiplexes yesterday. The studio invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of this review. The film is playing at many theaters nationwide now. Here is a list of them (that’s a hotlink).