‘Mud’ Movie Review – A Better Love Story
I’ve said it a lot, and I’ll say it again. Whether it is TV or the movies, praising them comes down to liking or disliking the characters. It’s a different story if you should like the characters, but the fact that they are dynamic, can show change, and are fun to watch goes a long way. In Jeff Nichols’ (Take Shelter) newest film, Mud, the characters are just one of the many things that make it the year’s best movie so far.
Set in Arkansas, the title may suggest the movie is about the actual character named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), but it’s more of a coming-of-age story about Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Ellis and the awesomely-nicknamed Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are both 14-year old products of rugged “rednecks.” Following in their father and uncle’s footsteps, the two boys are adventurous outdoorsmen. During an exploration to a small river island, they find a boat lodged in a tree (the result of a huge flood). More importantly, they discover Mud.
The charismatic, yet obviously sketchy, Mud makes friends with the boys. His mission is to meet up with his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He can’t do it himself, though, because he’s a fugitive on the run from the police.
The plot description may not make it seem this way, but Mud is primarily about love. It’s a multi-faceted story, though, because it doesn’t restrict itself to just romance. Instead, there is plenty about family, friendship, and lust.
And of course, this particular movie is better than 95% of all love stories.
It’s better because Nichols isn’t rushed or particularly forceful with his story (he wrote it, too). In the land of listless voiceovers and heavy hands, Nichols chooses a different method. This shouldn’t be that surprising either because his two other feature films are similar.
After being thrown in the middle of the setting and situation, it is up to the audience to catch up. This intrigue adds to the entire suspense, but it also gives the audience a lot of credit.
When the story does unfold, a wide array of characters get huge developments without the story feeling erratic. It may seem a tad predictable, but the start-to-finish changes for Mud, Ellis, Neckbone, Senior (Ray McKinnon), and Tom (Sam Shepard) are amazing.
Of all the aspects that work (some I’ll get to a little later), the use of symbolism was the most fascinating. There’s a reason Mud has a snake tattooed on his arm. There’s a reason Tom – the closet thing to a father Mud has – alludes to not getting bit twice. The snake represents love (or possibly women) and snakes can kill you.
It’s up to you to agree or disagree with Nichols’ view of love.
“Up to you” may scare a couple people, especially the few that watched (and ultimately didn’t like) Nichols’ other movies. Both Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter don’t have definite, unambiguous endings. Mud is definitely more like Shotgun Stories – it’s not psychological in the same way Take Shelter is – but it does have more traditional closure. I think this is an okay thing, too, because since it’s primarily a coming-of-age story, it’s ultimately going to boil down to seeing if and how Ellis has changed. The rest comes together after that resolution.
Speaking of Ellis, among the actors, Sheridan is by far the standout. McConaughey has a flashy performance (especially right after he’s introduced), but the up-and-coming Sheridan steals the spotlight. The 16-year-old can go from tough to sensitive better than most seasoned actors.
Quickly running through the rest of the compliments, Mud is superbly written and directed (if I haven’t made that obvious yet) because of the stylistic and setting choices that Nichols makes. It also has this year’s best scene (the final boathouse).
All around, Mud is a definite must-see. It’s a departure, in a way, from Jeff Nichols’ filmography. It’s still got plenty of family (a big part of Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter), but it’s primarily about romantic love and Ellis growing up. What’s truly beautiful is how well Nichols can develop his other characters simultaneously. It’s well-paced (maybe a smidge slow at times) and beautifully directed and shot. There’s so much to love about this film, the list shouldn’t even stop here.
Mud is playing in limited release now. Check local listings to see a screening near you.
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