Published on September 20th, 2014 | by Clint Davis
Summary: Jeff Nichols, already one of the brightest directors in film, makes the best coming-of-age flick since 2008's 'Let the Right One In'. It's gritty but also has heart to spare and the cast is an acting fan's dream.
R | 130 min.
Director & Screenplay: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland
Studio: Everest Entertainment, Brace Cove Productions, FilmNation Entertainment | Distribution: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions
The McConaussance is full-tilt-hammer-down on. After 2000’s The Wedding Planner, Matthew McConaughey turned into Hollywood’s it-man for shitty, sappy, rom-com/action slop — cranking them out an a yearly basis. He made so many of these dime-a-dozen flicks that many film buffs forgot about the once promising and über talented star of A Time to Kill, Contact, and Frailty. I’m proud to say I never gave up on the man who once made “Allllright” a catch phrase for the ages.
All of a sudden, McConaughey is on the biggest hot streak of his career, turning in outstanding performances in his last seven flicks, starting with 2009’s The Lincoln Lawyer — this was the official start of The McConaussance, as I’ve heard some call it. Even if each film wasn’t a masterpiece, he’s left audiences reeling with the work he’s done in them. He seems to always bring a sly confidence to each character, letting you know that he’ll get the job done, even if he has to skirt the rules to do it.
Enter Mud, the title character of Jeff Nichols’s 2012 effort. In Mud, McConaughey plays an enigmatic man with a glaring dark side but enough charm to pull you close. He’s broken down, living in the shadows on a small deserted island on the Mississippi River in Arkansas. As we learn more about Mud, we find out he’s a figure that’s spent his life in the margins of society, much like the majority of this memorable film’s characters.
The story centers on two teenage best friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) — these kids are as country as it gets, spending their days looking for distractions in the woods on their dirt bike, or in the water on their small boat. The boys are out looking for a boat that’s been caught high in a tree, acting as a makeshift treehouse — the only problem is a mysterious stranger named Mud is living in it. We soon find out Mud is on the lam for a murder he committed when defending the honor of his childhood love Juniper (Reece Witherspoon as a kind of white trash angel). With nothing but the shirt on his back and a small handgun to his name, Mud recruits the two kids to gather the necessary supplies for him to take off with Juniper and never be seen again.
Despite its uninspiring title, Mud is a movie about dreams and the hopeless romantics that chase them. Mud and Ellis share a lot of characteristics and in the drab world of backwoods Arkansas, where his mother and father are on the brink of divorce and his home is bound to be taken away by the government, Ellis looks up to the man he finds stranded on the island.
Ellis has to be one of my favorite characters of recent memory and Sheridan proves to be a perfect casting choice, blending the wide-eyed optimism of a child with the rugged confidence of a teenage boy. This character dreams of something better and more pure than the world he lives in — rather than simply being a horny puberty-stricken teen like Neckbone and his overgrown boy of an uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), Ellis isn’t interested in anything but true love. Through his rose-tinted glasses, he sees the relationship between Mud and Juniper as a perfect picture of what it means to be in love — despite the glaringly obvious problems in their pairing.
Mud‘s cast is stacked with talent, so much so that a proven powerhouse like Shannon plays only a minor role with a handful of lines. McConnaughey, Witherspoon, Shannon and the two young leads are also bolstered by strong showings from Sarah Paulson (FX’s American Horror Story) and the always spotless Sam Shepard. In a film full of father-figures, Shepard’s Tom Blankenship acts as a grandfather, eventually serving as a protector in the film’s intense climax.
Good coming-of-age films always have a way of hitting home and Mud belongs with the finest of that genre. The boys in Stand By Me found themselves coming face-to-face with mortality while never running out of wisecracks, the girls in Now and Then (a wildly underrated ’90s gem) realized some painful truths about love and the facades of suburban life, while Ellis and Neckbone remind me of American literature’s most adventurous pair, Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. Like those classic characters, the duo in Mud spend their days entertaining themselves, scraping by with less-than-ideal home lives and hanging around folks that exist outside of society’s norms.
In my opinion, Nichols has given filmgoers the best coming-of-age story since 2008’s Let the Right One In although I can’t imagine it having the popular appeal of some of the genre’s classics because it’s more gritty than fun and doesn’t feature a soundtrack that will drum up nostalgia in its viewers. Mud is about that painful time when we all take our first steps into adulthood and realize that maybe not everything we dream of is possible.
But don’t you believe that.