Mud (2013)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on May 1, 2013 @

Mud deserves more than a single viewing.

In fact, I think it demands - and will reward - continued attention.

Mud is a rare contemporary commercial film that has rich depth, engaging style, and personal vision. It's a crackling work of art.

Director/writer Jeff Nichols' Mud is as flamboyant and deceptive as its title character. It's as deep and multi-faceted as the metaphoric Mississippi River.

Nichols has a marvelous visual style, and his film takes a pace that allows it to capture evocative shots that reveal a palpable sense of place.

Nichols goes from the murk at river bottom, to sparkling light, to water splashing on the shore, to broad blue horizons. He's a director who makes the time to create visual poetry.

The energetic music by David Wingo enhances it.

For Nichols, place obviously is paramount. An Arkansan, who is based in Texas, Nichols in Mud goes back to the formative setting of his youth.

Mud, written by Nichols, is the story of a man of mystery who calls himself "Mud" (Matthew McConaughey). He had a spirited and spiritual relationship with two teenage boys.

!4 year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) journey to an isolated island on the Mississippi River. There they see a boat stranded atop a tree. They climb up into it and stake their claim.

But they discover that it already is lived in. On the beach they meet the man who has taken ownership. It's Mud - unkempt and alienated. Fearsome but vulnerable. They are drawn to him and agree to help him.

Eventually Mud admits that he is wanted for murder and is waiting on the island to join the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is coming to town.

The idea that Mud is devoted to his love appeals to young Ellis who is fascinated by love. He is naive, even gullible, but he's also totally committed to an ideal.

Ellis becomes a go-between for Mud and Juniper. The situation becomes fraught with danger, because a posse hired by the powerful father (Joe Don Baker) of the murdered man is out to kill Mud. Love is under siege.

The stellar cast is equal to the creative direction and writing by Nichols.

It's hard to think of a better embodiment of Mud than Matthew McConaughey. His portrayal of a quirky, enigmatic loner has tantalizing resonance.

Young Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are remarkably photogenic. And Nichols' cinematographer Adam Stone takes great advantage in the close-ups. Sheridan especially exhibits a sensitivity and basic decency.

Sam Shepard provides gravitas as Mud's old mentor, Tom. Reese Witherspoon has an effective edge as Mud's sometimes fickle love.

Ray McKinnon is credible as Senior, whose marriage is collapsing while his son Ellis helplessly watches. Wounded and unhappy, Senior earnestly tells his son that he loves him.

Susan Paulson also is credible as Mary Lee, the wife and mother who wants a better life for herself and her son.

Michael Shannon, as Neckbone's uncle, perhaps is less defined than the other roles. Shannon, who appeared in the other two movies directed by Nichols, represents love as reckless, immature lust.

If the primary theme of Mud is love, it seems to have many facets. Like Kane, Citizen Mud is seeking love. And young Ellis, like a reporter, is looking for knowledge about it.

In Mud, love is fractured, fickle, flawed, and sometimes true. The characters all have different experiences of love. Some are defunct; others are evolving.

The acting is excellent, and the style is wonderful, but what makes Mud most worthy is its depth.

Like great directors before him - Hitchcock, Polanski, Altman, et al. - Nichols uses duality with real skill and impact.

Mary Lee says to Ellis, "I'm just saying, there are two sides to this."

Mud is replete with intriguing, provocative pairs. Do the pairs jibe or conflict?

We are introduced to duality early when at the beginning there is a shot of two pistols.

In the first close-up of Mud, he has one eye shut.

How do we see?

One man's "sniper" is another man's "assassin."

In Mud, there are two 14 year-old boys (Ellis and Neckbone).

There's a father and an uncle (Senior and Galen).

There are two women who leave, or are left.

There are two religious symbols (A shoe with a cross and a wound in the side).

There are two plastic bags of fish.

There are two kinds of catch (Catfish and oysters).

Both Mud and Ellis voraciously eat cold, uncooked food from cans.

Mud says there are two things that protect him (Pistol and shirt).

There are two boats (One in a tree).

There are two females who are teases.

There are two females with two first names (Mary Lee and May Pearl).

Ellis punches two guys (One retaliates).

There are river folk and townies.

There are the island and the mainland.

There are two rivers (The Arkansas and Mississippi).

There are two snake bites.

There are two letters (With contrary messages).

There are two goodbyes.

Mud is one of those films that easily could be ruined by its ending. It could end in several different ways. It could conclude upbeat, downbeat, or offbeat.

It may remind us of the ending of L.A. Confidential (1997). At the end, like many successful films, Mud asks us to suspend our disbelief a bit.

Mud concludes with a major change in tone, and then a touch of hokum. But if one goes along, fortunately it succeeds.

Mud is a love song.

Even though Mud is an extraordinary exploration, I'm still not completely sure of all of the vicissitudes of love.

I guess I'll have to see it again.

That's the way love works.

© 2000-2024 Tony Macklin