“Mud” opens in a natural setting, untouched by man. On a small Arkansas island on the Mississippi River nothing seems to live here but grass, snakes and overgrown trees. From the sandbar of this forgotten place is a view of where the Mississippi opens up and stretches off into infinity. It is pure, wordless poetry sculpted and molded by the mighty hands of God. At the center of this island is something unusual, a particularly strong tree in whose high upper branches something rests that shouldn’t be there: a cabin cruiser power boat. How did it get here? No one can accurately explain. Maybe it’s just further proof that, aside from being a great sculptor, God has a sense of humor.
The poetry of this location echoes the lives of two young boys Ellis (Ty Sheridan) and his best buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who bring their own small motorboat to its shore. The opening of horizon of the Mississippi River is symbolic of the world they are about to enter, wide and uncertain. “Mud” is the story of how they get a jumpstart into that world. They are young, 14 years-old, teetering between adolescence and the remainders of boyhood adventure. Ellis is observant and thoughtful, while Neckbone’s attentions are focused on the wondrous forbidden avenues of the female anatomy. Finding the boat in the tree, the boys claim it as their tree house; but in investigating the lower deck, Ellis finds some food that looks fresh. He coldly warns Neck, “Someone’s living here.”
That “someone” turns out to be an unkempt loner who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He befriends the boys, telling them winsome tales of his girlfriend whose hands are covered in bird tattoos; and the tale of his lucky shirt that he claims is no less than a suit of armor. They’re impressed and make a deal with him when he asks them to bring him things from the mainland for a project that he’s working on. He wants to get the boat out of the tree so he can take it down the river. It doesn’t take long for Ellis to deduce why Mud is living on the island and why he needs to get away. Mud’s basic problem can easily be deduced but the outcome of his adventure cannot. Can they trust him? We don’t know. The gun in his belt might be a warning.
That description may make the opening of “Mud” sound like the preparations for a standard thriller or a bonehead comedy. This is not the case. Writer-director Jeff Nichols has constructed a screenplay of intricate detail, rich in characters who seem to be marching with the flow of real life. He has a feel for the spirit of life in the rustic south (this is Arkansas). He doesn’t compartmentalize his location but allows it to flow naturally. There are no southern stereotypes here, no toothless hicks, no one whittles and makes cornpone comments. These are real people living real lives. They are not simply pawns to move around in the plot, but full-blooded souls that we come to care about. By the end we care about them so much that when a gun-battle ensues, we find ourselves preparing mentally for one of the characters to die. The movie earns our emotions. It is the characters who create the plot, not the other way around.
For Ellis, this adventure is a passage into manhood as he stands at the sidelines of his dirt-poor parent’s squabbling while at the same time experiencing his first tentative steps into a relationship (his first kiss is, quite simply, magical). At home, his mother and father squabble over finances. His mother is passive but his father – damaged and disappointed by life – frets about the future. In a lesser film the father might have been a mean drunk but Nichols script allows him to be a responsible man who cares deeply about his son. There is a scene toward the end when they tie up some loose ends that is really very touching. Again, this moment isn’t manufactured, the movie has developed these two in such a way that it has earned a scene of emotional economy.
Aside from the leisure place, this movie is also an exciting thriller, one in which we have such an investment in the hero that we become nervous for him when unhealthy forces start closing in. We feel for this man Mud because Matthew McConaughey gives him not only ordinariness, but also a convincing amount of naiveté – he walks blindly into trouble. This is McConaughey’s first great role in a decade. After a brilliant start in films like “Dazed and Confused” and “A Time to Kill” and “Contact”, he slipped into a tiring series of unfunny romantic comedies that made him a laughing stock. Now he’s back to form in the best performance he has ever given. He’s not a wounded saint, but a man who has done the wrong thing and faces the possibility that he won’t get away clean.
What a brilliant piece of work this is. What an exciting story it tells. If we complain that American movies have fallen into the dust-bins of special effects and noise, we need only to look at a film like “Mud” to be reassured that the great American film is alive and well. This is a film that is on par with “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Grapes of Wrath”, and the writing of Mark Twain. Few films this year will reveal such an economy of characters, such a wondrous and exciting plot, or such an emotional resonance. This is one of the best films of the year.