Ellis (Tye Sheriden) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two Arkansas youngsters who go searching in a nearby forest after hearing of a boat stuck up a tree. However, when they find said boat, they also stumble across a mysterious fugitive by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The boys agree to help Mud fix up the boat and reunite him with his old girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), but can Mud be trusted?
Mud, like its titular character, is an enigmatic beast. At first glance it’s a harsh, troubling film full of people with flaws and an appetite for (their own and others’) destruction. However, look a little deeper and there’s much more to it. It’s a film about relationships: ones that fail, ones that grow and ones that survive no matter what.
It’s part family drama, part coming of age story, part crime drama, and a few other bits and bobs scattered throughout, too. We see Ellis fall in love for the first time, have to struggle with his parents’ faltering marriage, as well as take on the responsibilities bestowed on him by Mud.
It recalls Stand By Me in the relationship between Ellis and Neckbone, as well as the opening few scenes where the two travel into the woods in search of a boat they’ve heard is stuck up a tree. It also bears similarities with this year’s The Way Way Back, particularly in the relationships between the central young lead and those around him, namely his parents and an iconic older figure he looks up to. In this case that’s Matthew McConaughey’s Mud.
McConaughey appears to have completed his transformation from rom-com laughing stock to genuinely serious actor. His roles in films such as Killer Joe and The Paperboy proved he really can act, and he’s similarly impressive here. We have no idea if Mud is a good guy at heart or not, yet he’s intriguing, an allure that both Ellis and Neckbone are drawn to. McConaughey plays the role suitably aloof, almost as a kind of anti-hero, perfectly balancing the character’s dangerous and sensitive sides.
Equally as fantastic are the two child actors, Tye Sheriden and Jacob Lofland. The two are reminiscent of Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix in Stand By Me, with Sheriden in particular giving a quite superb performance, perhaps even outshining McConaughey in his genuinity and heart.
Set in Arkansas along the Mississippi River, the film’s location also plays a big part in helping to create a believable and vivid setting. From dense forests to river banks to motels alongside busy interstates, the locations aren’t anything new but still manage to feel unique, particularly Mud’s temporary home on a small island in the Mississippi. This is largely down to Adam Stone’s excellent cinematography which captures a perfect balance of the freedom of the wide open spaces and the claustrophobic interiors.
Mud might seem like a film for adults, but part of its brilliance is that it can actually be enjoyed by just about anyone. Even though the film feels somewhat separated from most people’s society and way of life, Director Jeff Nichols has created something that still feels very grounded and personal.