Film Review: Mud

Against a lush Mississippi River backdrop, a boy’s coming-of-age is spurred by a friendship with an outlaw.

If Huck Finn had parents who were getting a divorce, he might be like the introverted but scrappy Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Just on the brink of puberty, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) spend a lot of time sneaking around—catching glimpses of older girls and taking their boat further down the Mississippi River than they’re allowed. Early one morning, they venture beyond those boundaries, setting foot on an island in the middle of the majestically wide Mississippi River. Perched in the heights of a tree, there’s a boat which settled there after a flood. Such a sight is a magnet for two boys, who are startled to find that a disheveled man (Matthew McConaughey) has taken roost in the boat. Turns out he’s waiting for a girl, his love, and he convinces the boys to bring him food in return for relinquishing the boat once he reunites with her and leaves.

While Neckbone is suspicious of the man, and rightfully so, Ellis is more compassionate, even after it becomes clear to them that Mud is a convict on the run. McConaughey, who has already shown off his charms as a male stripper in Magic Mike, has a swagger and relaxed charisma to him that appeals to the boys’ sense of manhood. Mud is who Ellis would be if he aged two decades in an instant. His notions of love and loyalty are absolute. They aren’t practical for the modern world, and they’re what got him in trouble in the first place. Ellis uses his fists to right wrongs and to get the attention of pretty girls. Mud, an adult, does the same.

Ellis helps Mud even further when he spots his woman with a bird tattoo in a Piggly Wiggly. That’s Mud’s girl, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, playing a damaged beauty with ease). Ellis gets more and more drawn into Mud’s plan to escape from the island, acting as a go-between for Mud and Juniper and assembling supplies to get the boat out of the tree and into the water. He wants to see the convict escape with his girl off into the sunset, but as difficulties mount, the boyhood dreams of Mud and Ellis seem less likely to have a happy ending.

With Mud playing out over two hours at a languid pace, there’s plenty of time for audiences to mull over the meanings of symbols like Mud and Juniper’s complementary animal tattoos. Mud has a snake running up his arm to remind him of the time he almost died of a snake bite. It occurs to me that birds look cute but also sometimes eat snakes. Writer-director Jeff Nichols enriches what could have been a more straightforward story by weaving in references to that slithering foe, along with meditations on both Mother Nature and human nature. There’s also a soft parallelism between what happens to Mud and Ellis, as the characters go through similar experiences being disappointed by girls. Their different reactions to being spurned speak volumes.

The central narrative is studded with memorable performances from the side characters. Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichols’ Take Shelter, plays a supporting role as Neckbone’s uncle, who woos women and dives for shellfish using a homemade helmet. Ellis’ reclusive neighbor in the houseboat across the river, Tom (Sam Shepard), turns out to have known Mud in the past. He’s the first grown-up to find out about the boys’ project helping the convict, and his headshaking at Mud suddenly changes the perspective, making Ellis’ idol look like more of a boy than the 14-year-old. With little screen time, Ellis’ mom (Sarah Paulson of “American Horror Story”) conveys a woman who is emotionally torn over the divorce she was driven to initiate.

Mud is set nominally in the present, but references another, fading era. Ellis’ houseboat on the river is on the verge of being seized by the government. Few people live off the land the way Ellis’ dad and Neckbone’s uncle do. How much money is there to be made selling bait and shellfish gleaned from the river? The languorous cinematography of Adam Stone, who has worked with Nichols on all three of his pictures, infuses the river with appealing nostalgia. This is a place without cell-phones and where convicts run free. Ellis’ whole world is the river, and as a coming-of-age tale, it seems like Nichols is setting us up to see Ellis learn that the outside world doesn’t work according to his childlike sense of right and wrong. What actually happens is more complicated, serving as both repudiation and affirmation of naïve hope and unconditional loyalty. It requires a bit of mulling over as the credits roll. Nichols could have tightened the middle of this unusually introspective boyhood adventure, but the slowness has its own rewards: a nuanced story about growing up in a breathtakingly realized setting.