Synopsis: Two teenage boys encounter a fugitive and form a pact to help him evade the bounty hunters on his trail and to reunite him with his true love. (Source)
The best way to describe Mud is that it’s an utterly piercing experience. Director Jeff Nichols has effectively captured the trials and tribulations of growing up within a genre-bending masterwork of danger, deception and ultimately hope. Channeling the raw innocence and emotion of being a kid, Nichols weaves a powerful American crime drama about expectations that don’t match up with reality and that fateful moment when we decide to let go of the things that weigh us down in order to move on and become whole. In a culture dependent upon big spectacle and superheroes (which I’m shamelessly a part of), Mud shows us that the biggest stories are still the most intimate ones, trading big heroic moments with quiet, anonymous sacrifice.
The story centers on two two teenage besties named Ellis (The Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). One day, while exploring a small island amongst the Mississippi River, the pair find a destroyed boat stuck up in a tree. Before they can claim it as their own however, they discover that a mysterious fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already been living in it. Armed with a pistol and his fair share of secrets but not threatening to the boys, he initiates a series of favors from them, dropping the adolescent teens into the middle of a dangerous game of vengeance and jealousy that will change their lives forever.
Where Nichols’ film excels beyond most stories of this type are his ability to mix classic crime drama conventions, unjaded romanticism and childlike innocence, amounting in a poignant genre-bender. Taking cues from classics such as Mark Twain with a hint of Coen Brothers, Nichols constructs a rich character study which juxtaposes juvenile maturation with adult, intellectual purgatory. From that all-too-painful first heartache to those unforgettable life-changing moments, the film is a beautiful rumination of how things don’t always work out the way we want them to, but rather mostly to our benefit. Throw in some genuine family drama, bounty hunters, a murder mystery and you’ve got yourself a gripping adult fairy tale. Nichols even presents the entire thing with an eerie tone, wrought with potent metaphor and Adam Stone’s surreal photography. It all comes back to a film that’s no stranger to nostalgia, yet isn’t a slave to it, proving that the past only helps to shape the future.
The story’s sharp themes are no better represented than by the film’s diverse cast. Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone steal the film and will end up delivering some of cinema’s most pure performances this year. The film intelligently makes us view it’s events through their eyes, full of naivety, awe and optimism. Together, the pair also have a genuine rapport, full of lightning fast wit and banter that’s fun and honest. Fans of Take Shelter (Nichols’ previous film) or of Michael Shannon will be delighted by his role as Neckbone’s distant but well-meaning uncle and father figure Galen. He’s a bit quirky with his giant diving helmet and a hilarious euphemism-laced invite for Ellis to hang out more often at his house. As for the man of mystery himself, Mud, Matthew McConaughey continues his rewarding, career challenging streak without this role. The guy is seriously on fire, displaying a sensitivity to compliment his devilishly good looks and a haunting longing that we can all relate to. As a inverse version of the kids, his arc is a smart dissection of someone running from their past and trapped by their misguided choices but not ever out of salvation’s grasp. Sam Shepard as Tye’s neighbor has an important role that I’d rather not spoil and a cherry on top.
Mud has simply got it all. It’s a mature tale for adults about fathers, sons and unbreakable family bonds, whether they’re inherited through blood or friendship. It’s certainly not a common thing to get such a satisfying and deep coming of age film that speaks volumes, yet Jeff Nichols has achieved just that here. He’s grown significantly since his last film and has again focused on things that matter. Most importantly, he’s done it in a way that’s entertaining and sincere. To paraphrase a character in the film, the river brings a lot of trash; you gotta know what’s worth keeping and what’s worth letting go — Mud is a keeper, and a strong contender to round out the year’s best.
Crome Rating: 4.5/5