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