Movie Information

The Story: Two boys in a small Southern river town help a fugitive fix up a boat for his getaway with the woman he came back for. The Lowdown: An altogether exceptional film about Southern life as seen through the eyes of two boys on what seems to them a romantic adventure. Highly recommended.
Genre: Drama
Director: Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard
Rated: PG-13

Jeff Nichols’ Mud continues the seemingly out-of-nowhere transformation of Matthew McConaughey into an actor whose films I actually want to see. It also moves — tentatively at least — Nichols into the realm of filmmakers to keep an eye on. Oh, sure, I admired his last film, Take Shelter (2011), but I certainly didn’t like it and have no desire to see it again. Mud is a diffrent proposition altogether. With it, Nichols goes from strained indie-ness to full-fledged filmmaker of the human and humanist variety. He also becomes something truly rare — a non-condescending observer and chronicler of the modern South. Calling him a modern Mark Twain would be pretty outrageous hyperbole, but I don’t know that it’s all that far off the mark. In many ways, the two kids in this film might be Tom and Huck, though the title character is probably more like Mr. Dickens’ Magwitch than like Huck Finn’s Joe. That said, if I drag in Charles Dickens on top of Mark Twain, I’ll set expectations impossibly high. And yet, that’s the sense I get from Mud. It feels like a literary film without being one — perhaps because it also feels authentically modern.

The story is relatively simple. It’s a kind of coming-of-age yarn centered on Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life), whose parents’ (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) impending divorce threatens not just his family stablility, but marks the passing of a way of river life. Along with the divorce — and Ellis’ first love for the considerably older May Pearl (newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant) — the story follows a central adventure involving Ellis and his even lower-class friend, Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland), coming across Mud (McConaughey), a fugitive from the law who is living on one of the islands that dot the river. Mud is at once a little terrifying and fascinating — and, for Ellis, a figure of romance since Mud is in the area to reclaim the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon in an uncharacteristic role). It’s Mud’s plan — with the aid of the two boys — to patch up a boat left marooned on the island (in a tree, no less) by a hurricane and, ultimately, sail away with Juniper. What bored, adventure-seeking kids could resist such a plan — regardless of the dangers they only dimly perceive?

As a story, it’s a good one, but as a film, it’s the depth and complexity of the characters — including some I haven’t mentioned — and the attention to the details of life in a small Southern town that elevates Mud to something like greatness. I don’t think there’s a false note in the film. It even manages to pull off an uplifting — or at least hopeful — ending of the crowd-pleasing variety that doesn’t feel forced and phony, not in the least because of a very real undercurrent of pain and loss. Everything feels real with both the losses and the gains fully earned. The performances all come across as lived-in rather than acted. If I have any qualms at all, it’s only that I’d like to see Ray McKinnon — who has become an essential Southern character actor — get back to making films of his own rather than just being in other people’s pictures. But that’s hardly a complaint about Mud itself. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.

Playing at Carolina Cinemas

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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24 thoughts on “Mud

  1. Steven

    You should see [i]Shotgun Stories[/i] if you ever get the chance. I think I’d rank it higher than [i]Take Shelter[/i], though this is someone that finds that film to be mostly great.

  2. Ken Hanke

    I think I have a screener of Shotgun Stories around here somewhere, come to think of it. “Around here somewhere” is, unfortanately, not much different from saying “somewhere in North America.”

  3. DrSerizawa

    Ken liking McConaughey? Am I living in a Salvador Dali painting?

  4. Ken Hanke

    It’s not actually new — last year we had Bernie, Killer Joe and The Paperboy. There are those who include Magic Mike, but I haven’t seen that. Something in his career trajectory changed for the better.

  5. Me

    Last year was McConaugheys year, plus hes in the upcoming Christopher Nolan film.

  6. Lisa Watters

    I also think McConaughey was great in Lincoln Lawyer; that was the first movie in which I thought, ‘Hey, he’s really good in this!”

  7. Ken Hanke

    That one I haven’t seen. I believe that was right at the edge of the “Oh, he’s in it; this is gonna suck” period.

    And, Lisa, why are your posts moderated? You work at the paper fer Chrissakes. Are you a loose cannon and I just don’t know it? Are you prone to saying harsh things to Mr. Peck or travelah?

  8. Me

    I think i first said “hey, he’s really good in this” when i watched Dazed and Confused in high school.

  9. Lisa Watters

    I don’t know why I’m being moderated Ken! Perhaps I come across as more of a hellion than I realized. Although I’ve wanted to say harsh things to Mr. Peck and travelah I have always refrained.

    As for Lincoln Lawyer I would have given it four and a half stars if I was in the star-giving business. If you ever have the free time (ha!) you might check it out.

  10. Big Al

    Loved it! Tied for #1 on my still-pathetically short top 10 list.

    “A helluva thang…”

  11. Big Al

    “Something in his career trajectory changed for the better.”

    I would posit that good things happen when you jump out of the rom-com hampster wheel.

  12. Me

    Just saw Paperboy is now on Netflix instant, forgot McConaughey was in that too last year.

  13. Ken Hanke

    Loved it! Tied for #1 on my still-pathetically short top 10 list

    I have a hard time imagining anyone not liking this. (Well, within limits.)

  14. Ken Hanke

    Goodness knows, it certainly seems to have drawn a crowd this weekend.

  15. Lisa Watters

    I saw it on Saturday. It’s still haunting me two days later (which doesn’t happen often with movies these days.) Not one false note. Excellent!

  16. Steven

    Tye Sheridan’s performance kind of knocked me on my ass. I haven’t seen a performance that a child that genuine in a long time. He articulated that cusp of adolescence perfectly.

  17. Lisa Watters

    Ken, just found out I will no longer be moderated. I am now rubbing my hands together and chucking diabolically to myself as I contemplate what to do with this new-found freedom!

  18. Big Al

    I just learned that “Mud”‘s run-time was 130 minutes. I seemed like 90, maybe 110. My sensative posterior was just starting to twinge when the light at the end of the tunnel appeared.

    Contrast this with “Place Beyond the Pines” at 140 mintes, the last 1/3 of which seemed to last an hour.

    The contrast between perception and reality of time is an excellent indicator of a film’s quality. “Mud” was my fave film of the year so far, while “Pines”, showing great potential, fell flat by stretching itself out far too long and for no good reason.

  19. Ken Hanke

    I agree to some extent that Pines is too long, but not that it’s for no good reason. The last section significantly illuminates the first two.

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