REVIEW: Mud [2013]

Score: 8/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: PG-13 | Runtime: 130 minutes | Release Date: April 26th, 2013 (USA)
Studio: Lionsgate / Roadside Attractions
Director(s): Jeff Nichols
Writer(s): Jeff Nichols

“Green beans never tasted so good”

It’s a rarity to find a coming-of-age story set inside an adult-themed drama. Usually we’re made to watch adolescents caught inside the funny/awkward growing pains of puberty as lust and love and vanity and fear all mix into a pool of hormonal angst, embarrassment, and pratfall through comedy. Writer/director Jeff Nichols looked to create something in opposition to such cliché when he set off on the journey leading him to Mud more than a decade ago. He sought a way to capture the heaviness inherent to falling in love during high school before fully grasping the concept of the word. At such a young age we’re easily led astray into idyllic fantasies of happily-ever-afters despite the reality of the situation being more attuned to a crippling pain of broken hearts and betrayed souls.

Through his two leads—fourteen-year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the titular, weathered fugitive (Matthew McConaughey)—we witness this impossible notion at very different stages in life. Whereas the boy has just cemented his first crush with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) after a show of brash strength, Mud is found caught blinded by a love so large it can never be reciprocated. Both grasp onto the dream of everything working out, of being the protector and therefore the provider for their better halves. Characters are quick to assume Ellis is so enamored by the admitted murderer because he is a “badass”, but the truth is that this killer is the only person in his life who feels deeply enough for someone other than himself to risk his own freedom.

As Ellis walks the fine line between an archaically conservative home life on the river of his rundown Arkansas houseboat and the more modern townies with whom he could never fit in, a crossroads is reached. His mother (Sarah Paulson) and father (Ray McKinnon) are about to split up in such a way that will force them to assimilate into suburbia while the fisherman way of life is gradually dismantled underneath their feet; best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) has been growing up parentless in the care of his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon); and the kids from his school seem more intent on being popular than being themselves. The world he once knew is crumbling around him and there is no example in sight to give him hope for the future. None until he finds Mud.

Hiding out on an island rumored to contain a boat in a tree, Ellis and Neckbone find Mud’s vagabond as he waits to be reunited with the love of his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Hungry, paranoid, and desperate for help he enlists the boys to trade him food in return for ownership of the strangely suspended sea vessel once he’s gone. Juniper is the only thing that matters to him and he’ll do anything to keep her safe. This is all Ellis needs to know—whether the man loves her unconditionally—before accepting the deal. Love was supposed to be about two people refusing to give up on each other, not the constant arguing and secretive talks held by his folks behind closed doors. Whatever Mud did or was to do came out of this unbreakable bond and that was a risk worth taking.

Like most stories, however, truth and lie are easily confused when the latter is what we’d rather believe. The details surrounding Mud’s actions in protecting Juniper are more complicated than first led on; bounty-hunting killers have come to town to take him out; and the boys soon find themselves smack dab in the middle of a situation escalating out of control. But the idea of love grows stronger and the desire to see his new friend reunited with his sweetheart bolder as Ellis earns a date with May. He needs this win to regain faith in life’s pursuit towards happiness; that we can still sacrifice ourselves for a power beyond our comprehension. If Mud and Juniper can escape together perhaps there is hope not only for he and May but his parents as well.

Shot in the dust and dirt of Arkansas, Mud comes to life in the coldness of impoverished Southern living. Possessing a tenuous hold at best on whatever anyone holds dear, existence revolves around hard work and suffering. There are no short cuts as trust is earned through action, bravery, and honor—three things that are no stranger to being bent within the clouded filter of love. We let ourselves stray from the path of righteous in its name and find ourselves investing in pretty stories created under its spell. It isn’t long before the fabricated shell dissolves under the pressure and true feelings reveal themselves to shatter all remnants of the fantasy born out of an unwillingness to accept reality. Sometimes love isn’t enough and sometimes love means having the strength to let go.

A brilliant character study of young boys idolizing the quasi-mythic stature of a mysterious man caught in danger, we’re shown how easy it is to forget ourselves in the midst of chaotic emotional release. As the bond of marriage breaks down it can still reform for a glimpse when the child that will forever connect them is in trouble. Even if there is no blood relation—as is the case between Mud and old Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard)—the power of responsibility and compassion will find a way to flood back. Nichols jams these disparate connections into his tale whether it the loose authority from an uncle—Shannon in a memorable turn—Shepard’s steadfast toughness, or McKinnon’s defeated frustration so that we can see neither is more right than the rest. In the end love prevails.

There are no easy answers or storybook farewells as the authenticity of pain and survival overshadow clichéd ideas of love at first sight. It’s way too complicated for such simplistic notions. Instead we watch a nuanced performance from the ever-improving McConaughey as the rough path of his existence hits a point he hoped he’d never face while Witherspoon is equal to the task pulling his strings but unable to commit. They show Ellis the existence of love as well as its inevitable failures when built for the wrong reasons. And as Lofland embodies the rough around the edges friend perfectly, Sheridan steals the show as the idealistic kid refusing to buckle under reality’s fist. It’s a stunning portrayal full of pent-up emotion slowly released as his understanding evolves and life’s punches begin hitting their mark.

[1] Tye Sheridan (left), Matthew McConaughey (middle) and Jacob Lofland (right) star in Jeff Nichols’ MUD, in theaters April 26th. Photo credit: James Bridges
[2] Reese Witherspoon stars in Jeff Nichols’ MUD, in theaters April 26th. Photo Credit: James Bridges
[3] Ray McKinnon in Jeff Nichols’ MUD, in theaters April 26th. Photo Credit: James Bridges

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