By Peter Debruge
If "Take Shelter" embodied man's crushing inability to cope with forces beyond his control, and "Shotgun Stories" examined a blood feud from the side of those in the wrong, then ascending writer-director Jeff Nichols blends the turbulent waters of the former with the dirty dealings of the latter to make "Mud." Confidently expanding his inquiry into the essence of American masculinity, Nichols' latest pressure-cooker pastoral conjures a wily figure of endangered Southern chivalry whose name is … you guessed it. Sturdy turns from Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon should support a wide release, curbed somewhat by pic's unhurried pace and heavy regional temperament.
Framed from the p.o.v. of two foolhardy Arkansas teens, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), "Mud" poses as a mere adolescent adventure tale but explores a rich vein of grown-up concerns, exploring codes of honor, love and family too sturdy to be shaken by modernizing forces. With trouble brewing at home, Ellis dares his less assertive sidekick to accompany him to an island where rumors tell of a boat stranded high in the trees by the latest flood.
One of those symbolic gestures of youthful independence, the trip takes the boys beyond the boundaries sanctioned by Ellis' parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone's uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) -- which would be exciting enough, even without the surprise discovery that an outlaw calling himself Mud (McConaughey) has made camp in the wrecked ship. Though everything from police roadblocks to menacing bounty hunters suggest that Mud means trouble, the two boys put unwavering trust in his far-fetched stories, with Ellis especially taken with the idea that this redneck Romeo's past and future crimes are all born out of love for a gal named Juniper (Witherspoon).
Sending Ellis back into town with a message for his lady friend, Mud cautions, "You gotta watch yourself," and those words serve as an unofficial mantra for the savvy young man's growing self-reliance. No doubt Nichols could have told the exact same story in half the time, but the plot here is secondary to the gradual transformation afoot. With David Wingo's subtle score easing auds into the rhythm of the locale, the film patiently witnesses Ellis' growing disillusionment with adults, even as he makes his clumsy first steps toward becoming one: punching out a senior to defend a high-school girl's honor, secretly defying his parents to nick food and supplies for Mud, and so forth.
One part "The Night of the Hunter," two parts "Huckleberry Finn," "Mud" may be born of the same rustic sensibility that fueled everyone from Andrew Wyeth to Terrence Malick, but Nichols expresses this outlook in a decidedly personal way. Apart from tapping his two teen leads fresh from "The Tree of Life" -- the creative equivalent of eating the heart of another to absorb his spirit -- few of Nichols' artistic decisions seem recycled from other sources, and even that kindred casting choice is fully justified by the plausibly naturalistic way both young thesps embody their characters.
Sheridan makes an especially strong impression, possessing not only the intensity to propel the story through its 130-minute running time but also a sensitivity that reads as unjaded by the world around him -- a world fully steeped in the texture of its Arkansas Delta environs without needing to inject the sort of picturesque cutaways d.p. Adam Stone contributed to David Gordon Green's early pics. That tangible sense of place owes largely to the contributions of Green's longtime production designer, Richard A. Wright, as adept at building houses on water as he is putting boats in trees.
Stone complements Wright's work by adopting a looser, more organic visual style, collaborating with Steadicam samurai Matthew Petrosky to bridge the claustrophobia of "civilization" with open-air footage shot either on water or at the remote island hideout. Out there, Mud plays king of the hill, a figure of great mystery to the two boys. Driven by oddball superstitions and his one-track determination to reunite with his true love, Mud comes across as an almost feral figure, benefitting greatly from that itchy unpredictability only McConaughey can bring. However blandly drawn Juniper feels by contrast, Witherspoon is just soulful enough to undermine the male characters' oft-repeated distrust of women -- exhortations rendered, like so much else in Nichols' script, with a poetically heightened twist on the regional vernacular.
Though the film occasionally grants us access to conversations the boys can't hear, "Mud" clearly unfolds from Ellis' perspective -- an elegant, intuitive-to-follow style matched by the way adult auds discover information at the same time Ellis does, while calling upon their own life experience to anticipate certain disappointments he is too naive to foresee.
26 May, 2012 | By Mike Goodridge
Dir/scr: Jeff Nichols. US. 2012. 130mins
A conventional narrative may be a rarity in Cannes competition this year, but Jeff Nichols’ Mud makes no apologies for its classic storytelling. A confident, nuanced, richly satisfying coming-of-age story which is part Huckleberry Finn, part Badlands, the film is another illustration that Nichols is becoming one of the most assured US auteurs at work today.
A long running time and a slow-burning pace might be considered commercial restrictions here, but the critical response and word-of-mouth should be strong and the name cast led by Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon will only enhance box office chances. It’s a film for adults, and yet, like Twain or To Kill A Mockingbird, it is devoid of bad language or excessive violence and could, one day, become a family perennial
Set in Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi, Mud is essentially the story of 14 year-old Ellis (Sheridan), a plucky young man who lives with his bickering parents (Paulson, McKinnon) on a houseboat. One day, he and his best friend Neckbone (Lofland) set out to an island on the river to explore the unusual spectacle of a boat suspended high in the trees from some past flood. They discover that somebody has been living in the boat and soon meet the culprit - Mud (McConaughey), a grimy, superstitious man clearly in need of food and a wash, who asks them to bring him food.
While they do bring him supplies, they also discover that he is a fugitive from justice, wanted for the murder of a man who had beaten Mud’s longtime girlfriend Juniper (Witherspoon) with whom he is now planning to run away.
Ellis, who is himself enjoying the first fruits of romance with a local girl, and at the same time reeling from the announcement that his parents are separating, becomes enamoured of the romantic story of Mud and Juniper, and helps Mud bring down the boat from the tree and get it operational and into the water so the two lovers can escape down river to Mexico.
But time is running out. The murdered man’s brother and shady father (Baker) are in town with a posse out to find and kill Mud, and Ellis begins to discover that the romance between Mud and Juniper is not as simple nor perfect as he imagined.
Nichols doesn’t break much new ground here and the themes and situations feel familiar from countless stories and previous movies. But he tells his particular story with elegance, wit and poignancy and never condescends to the boys who are both spunky and smart. He also elicits a fine performance from Tye Sheridan as Ellis whose confusion with the realities of adult romance and the world of girls rings painfully true.
The adult cast is also terrific from the increasingly impressive McConaughey to Witherspoon in a touching role as the complicated Juniper, and the always reliable Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon and Joe Don Baker.
The influence of Terrence Malick is writ large in Mud and there are parallels to Badlands and Days Of Heaven as well as David Gordon Green’s Undertow, which Malick produced. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Malick’s producer Sarah Green is also a producer on Mud.
Mud: Cannes Review
6:26 PM PDT 5/26/2012 by Todd McCarthy
The story of a sympathetic fugitive who forges a bond with two teenage boys near a mighty river down south, Mud is shot through with traditional qualities of American literature and drama. Jeff Nichols’ much-anticipated follow-up to his breakthrough second feature Take Shelter feels less adventurous and unsettling but remains a well carpentered piece of work marked by some fine performances and resilient thematic fiber. A shrewd and determined distributor would pursue the connection this exploration of love’s elusiveness could make with a mainstream heartland audience more than highbrow critical acceptance, as the potential seems present for good word of mouth with a public hungry for stories with which they can directly relate.
Nearly every relationship in Nichols’s screenplay is threatened, fractured or broken. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) has good reason to believe that his parents (Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon) are headed for a divorce, while is best pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is being raised by his oyster-diving uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Ellis, who’s 14, lives in a funky old houseboat while the nearby Arkansas town is a characterless wasteland of large chain stores and housing developments.
On a deserted island out in the Mississippi, the boys stumble into the grizzled, unkempt Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who’s hiding out in an old boat stuck up in a tree. Even though Mud soon admits that he’s killed a man in a dispute, the boys are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and, in exchange for the promise that they can have the boat once he’s done, they start ferrying food across to him in a launch.
Nichols readily admits the influence of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on his story, in addition to those of other Southern writers. Such stories were formerly staples of American writing and there’s enough dramatic and emotional meat on this one to suspect that audiences would easily engage with it. The title character is a perennial, a flawed man who admits the error of his ways and hopes for a second chance in the face of those who vengefully seek to take him down.
Significantly more appealing is the boy, Ellis, a sensitive, watchful, tough kid who’s able to stand up for himself. Although much smaller, he punches out an older high schooler and is flirted with seriously enough by an older girl to imagine that she’s become his girlfriend. His anger at his parents for not finding a way to remain together is painful enough to give them pause. Sheridan’s performance grows in stature and confidence as the film pushes on; he often keeps his words to a minimum, but his eyes and increasingly untrusting attitude toward adults and what they say speak volumes for his burgeoning understanding of the unsavory ways of the world.
Mud’s getaway plans require the boys to steal an outboard motor for him but he also asks Ellis to contact his ladylove Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who’s laying low in town waiting for the green light to join Mud. Also hovering, however, is a squad of bounty hunters led by a hulking bad old boy (Joe Don Baker), whose son Mud killed.
There’s more than enough anger, disappointment and disillusion to go around in Nichols’s carefully constructed, slightly overextended drama. It’s easy to criticize Mud for being old-fashioned, too redolent in familiar dramatic tropes, overly intent on establishing interlocking motifs and themes, and happy to fall back on both climactic violence and wishful thinking when it comes to second chances. More than anything, the characters of the boys keep it real and alive, the film’s emotional credibility overriding its dramatic convenience.
Mud is McConaughey’s second characterization of a Southern trouble magnet in the Cannes competition this year, along with The Paperboy, and this is the more distinctive of the two; with messy hair, tattoos and a chipped tooth, his Mud is a mess but still not without charm. After a string of silly and underperforming commercial outings, Witherspoon is on the money here in a strictly supporting turn as a trampy gal who’s wasted her life thus far. Young Lofland as Ellis’s pal, has a great face; Shannon, the star of Take Shelter, seems present more for moral support than for his role, which is very incidental, while Sam Shepard puts far more than his recent norm into his acute characterization of a man who may or may not be Mud’s real father and may or may not have been a government hit man.
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