It’s surprising how much our preconceived notions about an actor or a director can alter the way we perceive their new work. When I went to see Mud at a press screening, I didn’t have much time to do research on the film beforehand.
All I knew was that this was to be another step in the Matthew McConaughey renaissance movement. The hunky actor known for terrible romantic comedies recently started to reinvent his career with darker and grittier roles. His psychopathic, fried chicken fellatio-enthusiast sheriff in Killer Joe is a good example.
During the screening, without knowing anything about who wrote or directed Mud, I found it to be a satisfactory Southern drama about children becoming emotionally involved with a kindhearted and earnest criminal, sort of a more mainstream version of Sling Blade if you will. It was a bit too long and could have benefited from being trimmed around the edges, but I found it to be a valiant effort. It was only at the end of the screening when I found out that Mud was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, whose excellent Take Shelter was one of my favorite films of 2011. Compared to Take Shelter and his first film Shotgun Stories, this is kind of a step back for Nichols in terms of energy and originality.
Therefore, this information mildly hurt my generally positive feedback concerning Mud. However, general filmgoers do not usually care about the many up-and-coming directors’ oeuvre and it’s only fair to judge a piece of work on its own merits.
The simple story surrounding two southern boys’ (Ellis and Neckbone, played by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) complex relationship with Mud (McConaughey), a dirty fugitive who lives on an abandoned boat on a tree is executed well all-around with a solid script and natural performances.
Mud himself is an eccentric character to say the least. In love with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a confused woman he’s been in love with since childhood, he’s on the lam because he took things too far defending Juniper from her abusive boyfriend. McConaughey portrays Mud not as a finicky criminal full of remorse but as someone who’s comfortable in his skin because he’s firmly rooted in his code of justice and view of life.
Mud is also surprisingly practical and smart considering his living situation, so he enlists the help of Ellis and Neckbone in order to escape the law with Juniper in tow. In time, things don’t turn out to be as simple for Mud, especially in the case of Juniper. Ellis is also going through some coming-of-age turmoil via his parents’ divorce and his first heartbreaking romantic encounter with an older girl.
One of the best elements of Nichols’ script is the way he organically allows Ellis’ sub plot revolving around his newfound experiences with women and relationships tie thematically into Mud’s complex bond with Juniper. Tye Sheridan, who was also excellent in The Tree of Life is a bright young talent whose natural delivery and energy infuses the film with character.
I also appreciated that Ellis’ parents, played by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, were not portrayed as a stereotypical bickering and violent redneck family, but as a couple struggling with the idea of divorce and how it will affect their son, whom they love very much.
It’s somewhat disappointing that after settling into a rather calm pace that, even though it could benefit from a little more cutting, places these characters into its universe rather serenely, it had to end with a cliché set piece associated with Southern crime films where family honor is concerned. I would have liked to see the infinitely more creative Nichols tackle the subject matter with a more inspired third act.
Overall, Mud gets the job done as a drama of its sort and not much more can be said about it. It has excellent performances throughout, backed by decent cinematography, but as the first mainstream work from Nichols, it lacks the bite of Taking Shelter.