R, 130 min.
Director/Writer: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Paul Sparks, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker, Bonnie Sturdivant
Jeff Nichols has written and directed three movies, and he’s written and directed three masterpieces. I was blown away by his surprisingly funny family revenge drama “Shotgun Stories”. His “Take Shelter” was a harrowing journey into either madness or sorrowful enlightenment. Now, he gives us “Mud”. The most basic of the three and in some ways the most accomplished.
“Mud” tells the story of a boy going through his parents’ separation and divorce. He and his friend Neckbone (yeah, that’s what they call him) are entering that awkward adolescent age between childhood and adulthood when their explorations take them away from playing army and forts and into more adult territories. Girls are starting to matter and the passions of adult life are calling. They find a boat stuck in a tree from a flood and decide to make it theirs. Unfortunately, it already has an occupant. This is a man named Mud.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, in one of his best performances, as a man that any sensible adult can see is trouble. However, Mud befriends the boys and soon wraps them up in the drama of his life, which involves a woman with whom he’s supposed to rendezvous, and her family, who are out to kill him. He carries a handgun in the back of his pants waist, and there’s a strong sense that nothing good can come of the boys’ involvement with this man.
For most of its running time “Mud” seems like a fairly predictable if well made thriller. It doesn’t seem to have the depth of inspiration as Nichols’ other two films. Only in its final act does it reveal itself to be much deeper and more profound than the plot necessitates. Mud’s impact is much stronger than anyone could’ve imagined, as is the boy on Mud. A story that at first seems it can only end in darkness, and to some degree does, turns out to have a much more positive message at its core.
Nichols’ approach is so subtle that it is remarkable how all encompassing it is in the end. No character is unaffected by the gift that Mud brings with him on his troubled quest. I especially appreciate that in the end the parents’ divorce is not depicted as this terrible awful thing. Although their separation creates all the mess that must come from tearing apart of a family at its core, his father and mother have real feelings, not just hatred. They both love him and show him that, rather than showing their hatred of each other as is so often the case with movie divorces. They understand what they’re doing and understand the boy does not.