Mud: An engaging coming-of-age yarn from Jeff Nichols

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A nuanced coming of age story with a few epic bends, Jeff Nichols’s third feature, Mud, is both the story of every kid and this one kid: Ellis, played with remarkable vulnerability by Tye Sheridan, whom you might recognize from Tree of Life. Ellis is a 14-year-old river kid who faces troubles both common (crushes and domestic uncertainty) and uncommon (a sunburnt island-squatter—Mud—offers Ellis and his pal Neckbone a deal they can’t refuse).

I was struck how boy-like the boy-actors were, from their matter-of-fact capability navigating the river, to the wary way they watched adults for clues on how to navigate the much more tumultuous transition to adulthood. Newcomer Jacob Lofland adds humor as the blunt but ever-loyal Neckbone. Lofland and Sheridan weren’t acting like boys, they just were boys…which says a lot about these young actors’ talents and Nichols’s as well. (If you haven’t seen Nichols’s small-town, psychological thriller Take Shelter, do yourself a favor and download or rent it now.)

Not to be outdone by his tween co-stars, Matthew McConaughey’s character here is the upturned Arkansas river version of his old rom-com leads: dirty, glinting, with who-knows-what hidden under the currents. He plays the shifty dreamer Mud well, adding to the string of recent film-cred roles (Magic Mike, Killer Joe, The Paperboy, Bernie) that should keep the second act of his career going strong.

Many of Mud’s scenes were shot during the magic hour, with the glow used to light the actors’ expressive eyes. Nichols wisely lets those eyes do a lot of the film’s talking, as tempting as it would be to let the characters’ drawling dialect unspool unchecked. Nichols uses the same restraint to carefully place parallel story lines to add power to the film’s theme—love is big, messy and strong as that river—without overstating it. As tumbling and inevitable as its river setting, Mud rolls along, dragging you into its emotional undertow.

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Sarah Magill

Sarah Magill has a full-time movie habit made possible by a day-time greeting card writing gig. She blogs at Gimme Some Film and is learning to write scripts and direct. She tries to balance her screen obsession with trail running, jazz singing, book clubbing, and hanging out with The Best Golden Retriever Ever, Copa.

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3 comments on “Mud: An engaging coming-of-age yarn from Jeff Nichols”

  1. Y’know. I really wanted to see Take Shelter, then totally forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder.

    Also, I heard (or read) that Mud is the performance of McConaughey’s career.

    I’ll most likely wait and watch this one at home, but hopefully I won’t forget about it, like I did Take Shelter.

    • I’d have to do a little more research to make the “of McConaughey’s career” statement, but I’d say it’s way up there. Really believable and sympathetic…and I haven’t regarded him as particularly sympathetic before. Definitely see Take Shelter! Michael Shannon is amazing.

    • Wow! Has it been nearly a year? Finally just saw this movie (and still have not seen Take Shelter). I liked it. Ellis’s performance is unbelievable and holds this whole thing together–literally. I found this movie’s premise and structure to be quite a wobbly house of cards. The coincidence that Ellis A) Finds the boat when B) Mud has spontaneously shown up while C) Ellis gets his first girlfriend and B) his parents get a divorce — all in the span of maybe a week — really could’ve rendered this thing unwatchable and corny if the performances weren’t so great. I didn’t find Mud that compelling of a character. More like Dud. And he certainly didn’t deserve the title role. I also couldn’t figure out the bad guys. Were they out for money? Revenge? Both? Were they all the girl’s family or just the one guy was her brother? Why didn’t they just follow the boys to the island? How could getting Mud possibly make up for employing all of these ruffians and feeding and housing them for a week? Also, did the police just check a couple of cars and decide they just can’t find him and call it a day? I couldn’t put all the pieces together.

      BUT, I somehow was able to push all of that aside during the movie because I cared so much about Ellis. This is one of those situations where I have to honestly say, 6-12 more months of script development might’ve made this one a classic on the level of Slingblade and Stand By Me. As it is, too much is too foggy and too coincidental.