Mud Jeff Nichols
Published Jan 19, 2013"A lot of junk comes down the river. Some of it can be worth of a lot of money after you clean it up, but a lot of it is just junk. You need to know what things aren't worth keeping."
About halfway through Mud, Jeff Nichols' follow-up to the impressive and powerful character drama, Take Shelter, this observation is made to 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) by his best friend's uncle (Michael Shannon). Much like most of the adult warnings floating around this touching and astute, but somewhat contrived, coming-of-age story, it's lost on Ellis who, unfortunately, has to learn of worldly disappointment and heartache through experience and bad judgment of his own.
In the midst of dealing with the impending divorce of his parents, Ellis and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) routinely escape their small town by boating down the river beyond a point they've been warned not to cross. But, as is the nature of youthful curiosity, they thwart authority and happen upon Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an escaped criminal with a surprisingly affable and magnetic disposition.
Though Neckbone has a frank and candid manner, living with his laid back, promiscuous uncle in the absence of his parents, Ellis is prone to manipulation, believing that helping Mud reunite with his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), will reaffirm his idealized belief in altruistic human connection. A handful of secondary adult characters see Ellis running up and down the river, collecting various items to take with him, and attempt to warn him of the dangers of implicit trust and getting involved with the business of others—even Juniper gives Ellis knowing empathic looks—but, much like the snake bite metaphor reiterated throughout the film, wherein a bite can only be remedied with anti-venom once in your life, he needs to learn it for himself.
As Nichols already demonstrated in his first two feature films, he has a knack for capturing worldly disappointment and self-doubt with wonderful sagacity. Many coming-of-age stories have been made about children learning that the world is a complicated and disappointing place, but there's something uniquely devastating about its depiction in Mud.
And even though some of the parallel stories, such as Ellis' flirtation with an older girl that merely uses him to validate her own ego, have the misfortune of working as sidebar superficial contrivances, the core heart of the story remains strong.
Shot without any imposing viewpoint and utilizing a class vision that captures each frame like a portrait, there is a timeless nature to Mud that matches the overriding, universal themes perfectly. As characters repeat cycles of damaging behaviour, or acknowledge their need to escape the unbalanced and emotionally abusive relationships they've trapped themselves in, similarly believing in the myth of romantic love, there is a pained observation that not all things in life are worth fighting for.
This bit of practical knowledge is presented in the context of a folk tale, with a mythological dreamlike backdrop aiding an unforced youthful perspective, which is why some of the more abrupt elements—in particular, a rather shocking climax—while understandable, can be jarring. Of course, it's a high compliment to point out that the biggest shortcoming of Mud is the disconnect created by having too lyrical a sensibility and characters too richly drawn to make the exaggerated aspects feel like a cohesive part of the bigger picture. (Alliance)