Coming-of-age goes Southern Gothic in this compelling story about childhood, the loss of innocence and not becoming the person you fear you may be.
Two boys discover a fugitive hiding in the bayous outside their town and decide to help him evade the bounty hunters who are after him and possibly help him reconnect with a lost love.
Hyperbole runs the risk of making some statements déclassé but in this case, this film left me brave enough and comfortably compelled to risk saying that it is, quite simply, targeted at anyone with a pulse. In all seriousness, it is an extremely universal exploration of growing up and can be easily compared to Stand By Me. It carries an age restriction, so it may not be compulsory viewing for the whole family, but this is definitely a film that will appeal to a vast audience.
The Bottom Line
2012 was a good year for Matthew McConaughey. From a down-and-dirty cop moonlighting as a killer for hire in the audacious Killer Joe, to a stand-out supporting role in the devilishly funny Bernie. McConaughey likes to stick close to his Southern roots and Mud is no exception. Without a doubt, the film puts up a compelling arm-wrestle against Killer Joe as McConaughey’s best performance of his career but of course the film is much more than just an excuse to cast great actors in great roles. It’s a film with heart and passion.
Director Jeff Nichols (who wrote and directed the equally brilliant, Take Shelter) this time ferries us down the snaking Mississippi’s backwater bayous and introduces us to two youngsters – the soft-hearted Ellis and his mischievous buddy Neckbone – who may just as well be reincarnations of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. The director seems accompanied by Mark Twain, who almost haunts the story with his mythological and lyrical vision of the Gothic south, and evokes a deep sense of nostalgia and love for stories drenched in Southern Americana. This is not a film about hicks and hillbillies. These are real people who seem to exist on their own terms and rules and one can’t help but be absolutely captivated by them.
The two boys are fantastically cast and portray a charming and endearing friendship that is believable and easy to relate to. Their dirt-under-the-nails upbringing (Ellis lives on a houseboat and Neckbone’s guardian catches crayfish for a living) makes them pragmatic but also eager to clutch onto their fading childhood as much as possible. This is essentially a fable about manhood – almost every male in the lives of these two boys is a cynical and unreliable wreck and they are more aware of this than they care to admit. In order to deal with his roiling family dysfunction, Ellis spends his time off with Neckbone in the town’s backwaters and the pair discovers a marooned boat trapped in a tree. Make of that image what you will but it captures pretty much perfectly what this film is dealing with and speaks mountains about the emotional status quo of the two lead characters. After claiming the boat for themselves as the imaginary de facto capital of their hush-hush freedom from the world, they come across Mud.
Neckbone is initially repulsed and scared of the man but something in Ellis tells him they have more in common than they know. McConaughey comfortably sails through the role with a touch of sensitivity and a whole lot of rough bayou practicality that makes Mud one of the best “wise man” figures of any recent film. This approach is important because the audience needs to understand why these kids ultimately decide to help Mud get supplies in order to bring the boat down from the tree and get it afloat once more. He’s not some sort of creepy hick but the exact opposite of the men Ellis knows – Mud is wrapped in a sense of freedom and is liberated from the problems perverting the everymen in Ellis’ life who are supposed to stand in as role models. But there’s of course a dark streak to this all – it appears Mud is wanted by US Marshals and is hiding in the boat from his past that also involves a mysterious woman in town. A lot of Mud’s life reflects, albeit in a more innocent way, what is happening in the youngster’s life. Ellis’ predicament, much like Mud’s, is that he yearns for a way out, but isn’t quite sure how to get there. He’s a kid on the verge of manhood (his nascent relationship with a local girl is an important subplot) but he lacks the roadmap needed to get there (does anyone ever have one really?).
In any case, Mud is in some ways Jeff Nichols’ most personal film, and it is a finely crafted, superbly nuanced piece of filmmaking that exults in an incredible atmosphere which is both stifling and unexpectedly unshackled. Uncommonly scenic and laconic without ever being dull, Mud is a haunting experience—for the most part. Nichols engages in some unneeded hyperbole at the film’s climax, staging a kind of ridiculous shootout that subverts the more gentle ambiance of the rest of the film. But it’s a small misstep in an otherwise beautifully realized character study.