This is a difficult film to describe; it’s not really about the title character Mud, portrayed by Matthew McCounaghey. It’s also fundamentally about love but in a way it’s also about the opposite of that feeling. It’s about that place in time when the purity and optimism love creates is shown to be illusory in the stark light of reality; that day in our youth when the romantic players in our mind’s eye are replaced by actual flawed people, who are sometimes cold or dismissive or just plain awful for reasons we’ll never understand. This is a bleak description to start with, inaccurately so, as the overall feeling the film imparts is a positive one. It seems to say that every failure is an opportunity to start over, if we can only let go of our pain and expectations. More than that, Mud is about people using other people. Specifically, adults using people to get what they think they want, while taking advantage of a child’s belief that adults have some idea of what they are doing. That’s what I believe makes a good coming-of-age story: successfully depicting that moment when we realize that grown ups can be just as clueless as kids and don’t always know best.
Writer/Director Jeff Nichols took inspiration from Mark Twain while writing this story, it’s hard to miss the influence. The Mississippi River is depicted as both beautiful and dangerous to these two kids as they explore places that, as a grown adult, I would be hopelessly lost in. But when you are still that age when getting lost is part of the fun, before you know how much trouble you can really get into, it’s a thrilling experience to relive. Most films tend to use children as props for adult characters to have their own adventures around, but Ellis and Neckbone (yes, that’s his name) are treated with genuine respect by the storyteller, both are fully capable of making decisions for themselves, and Ellis allows himself to be maneuvered not out of ignorance but because he believes in the message that the adults only half believe themselves. His naivete is part of the strength of his character, he uses it to his advantage because he, unlike Mud or the rest of us, has not been bitten by that snake yet, the one named Betrayal. And although he doesn’t have a lot of dialogue to define him, Ellis is a good man by his actions and mannerisms, and when that lesson arrives it’s impossible not empathize with him even as far off as we see it coming.
What I found most amazing about this film is how suddenly and completely it drew me in. The pacing is deliberate, there is not really anything stylish or cinematic about it at first but ten minutes after I thought I might be getting a little bored I realized that I was completely engrossed. This is that quality of some films that doesn’t come around very often, that feeling of forgetting you’re watching a movie and being completely invested in every character. Like a retired grandmother sitting at home watching her soaps, I found myself having an inner dialogue about certain characters (oh no she’s not… she better have some excuse for not returning his calls…she’s off with some other guy isn’t she…UGH). Every character feels real, with real pathos and personality that the film makes no attempt at decoding. Because just like in real life, most people we meet we only see one side of, one singular aspect of who they are. Sometimes this is a facade, sometimes it’s a small kindness, other times we see a monster when we’re really looking at a wounded desperate soul struggling to right themselves in a difficult situation. It’s all relative. Ellis continuously hears conflicting descriptions of the same person from all different perspectives and this is the beauty of Mud as a piece of storytelling. Excluding the violent people hunting Mud, the principal characters are all just trying to be happy in their own way. Usually failing, but still searching, searching, searching, inevitably hurting the ones who love them.
The performances are to be applauded all around. McConaughey has come a long way since Failure to Launch, and if it didn’t seem physically impossible for him to not have a perfectly sculpted upper body at all times, I’d call this an Oscar worthy performance. Probably not an Oscar winning one, but definitely an effort that he should be more than proud of. It just seems improbable that while on the lam and starving he’d still have time to do crunches. Take a note from Christian Bale, muscle memory is your friend. Taye Sheridan, as young Ellis, is the emotional lynchpin of the whole story and he does an excellent job of displaying insecurity right alongside the stubborn nobility of youth. He is the pillar of morality throughout while the adults of the story are mired in their own self-interest and when he finally discovers his hands have been dirtied his indignation is righteous, his presence commanding. The supporting cast is loaded from Sam Shephard to Sarah Paulson to a complex and lovely Reese Witherspoon who ably sheds her quirky good girl debutante image in a role that is both challenging and mature.
It’s a very fine filmmaker who is able to capture the human condition as it can be: confusing, out of control, and too often tragic. And a lesser filmmaker would take the edgy road, leaving his audience to dwell on the unkindnesses that seem to find us all at one time or another, when intentions, however good, are paving that inexorable path towards trial and misery. Instead of meditating on sadness, Nichols continues the story, showing what people do after things fall apart: get back up. Eventually, at the bottom of everything, a person moves on with what’s left. Because there is always a new love to be found, another fork in the road, a new tributary to take that leads to another until we reach that final body of water. As the man once said, “Life is short, Break the rules. Forgive quickly. Kiss slowly. Love truly. Laugh uncontrollably. And never regret anything that makes you smile.” – Mark Twain