The latest film from Jeff Nichols tells the tale of Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two poor 14-year-old Arkansas kids whose attempt to claim a boat stranded high up in the branches of a tree by floodwaters brings them into contact with Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a strange, charismatic drifter, who has taken the vessel to use as his base of operations. He is apparently back in town to rescue the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), from some nameless trouble, and the boys are quickly drawn deeper and deeper into his schemes, unaware of how much danger they are putting themselves in, never asking themselves who Mud is hiding from, and why.
Mud clearly sets out from frame one to run along well-worn tracks – it’s like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn meets Whistle down the Wind (1961). Ellis (and this is mainly Tye Sheridan’s film) is a boy of unusual determination, who is appalled that his parents are about to break up and that the boat they live upon is going to be demolished by the river authority. He seems to seize upon Mud’s mission to prove something to himself about love and life. Mud himself is a semi-mystical character, a full grown child of nature with his own set of rituals and talismans, a romantic, not quite living in the real world. Much of the surrounding cast are a series of fathers and father-figures (Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker) offering alternative models and down-home wisdom on women and the messy business of being a man.
The trouble is that having masterfully set up all this classic Americana rites of passage stuff, Nichols simply doesn’t follow through with it. I was continually expecting the creator of Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011) to get a little darker or weirder, to defy my expectations. But although there are areas of ambiguity (mainly centred around Juniper, a kind of white-trash femme fatale, mortified by her ability to cause misery), in the end, hard life lessons are learned, shady characters come good, the bad guys are confronted and all is resolved. So in the end, it’s just too… straightforward.
It’s still a quality piece of filmmaking, the photography is fluid, unflashy and pretty damn gorgeous, with a wide palate of mood and light. You can feel the heat and humidity, the stifling small town boredom. All the details seem right, the bootleg Fugazi t-shirt, the cans of Beanie Weenies bought from the Piggly Wiggly. And that great cast is pretty much faultless. I couldn’t help wondering, though, how the film would have played with Nichols-regular Shannon in the lead instead of McConaughey (who’s at his best, as far as I’m concerned, playing outright bastards) and whether, in that case, we’d have something a little more troubled, unsettling and notable. Ah well…
Watch the trailer: