Can’t Live With ‘Em, by Rita Cannon
At the risk of being thuddingly literal, I have to admit that I thought a movie called Mud would be more…muddy. Director Jeff Nichols’ last outing, the terrific Take Shelter, was a dark, creepy drama that put us inside the head of lead actor Michael Shannon as he slowly lost his mind (or maybe didn’t). Its greatest strength was its commitment to ambiguity; we’re never quite sure what’s real and what’s a delusion, whether Shannon is a prophet or just crazy. Nichols’ new feature Mud isn’t like that. It’s a fairly conventional coming-of-age adventure, owing a greater debt to the exploits of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, even to fairy tales, than to any of Nichols’ previous work. It’s less taxing to watch than Take Shelter, but it’s also a little less human.
Matthew McConaughey plays the titular Mud, a fugitive living in the woods on an island off the southern coast, until he’s discovered by teenager Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Turns out he killed a man in a fit of rage, and he’s been on the run from the law, as well as his victim’s vengeful father, ever since. The boys are captivated by Mud, and are soon drawn into his plan to escape his pursuers and reunite with his former girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Meanwhile, back at home, Ellis’ parents are going through a divorce, and Ellis himself is navigating his first romantic relationship with an older girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).
The parallels Nichols draws between these three tortured love stories aren’t exactly subtle, but neither is Ellis’ experience of them; he’s looking for examples of romantic love to learn from. The failure of his parents’ marriage and his own struggles with May Pearl make him that much more determined to help Mud achieve what looks to Ellis like a perfect union, but they also seem powered by the same basic maxim: in the words of one character, “Women! Give ’em your heart, they’ll kick you in the nuts.” More compelling than this constellation of fickle women subplots is the central caper. Mud is being chased by cops and criminals alike, and in trying to help him escape, Ellis and Neckbone wind up in harm’s way themselves. The suspense of waiting to see whether these boys will survive the ordeal becomes much more interesting than the coming-of-age, loss-of-innocence, what-does-Ellis-learn-about-himself stuff, mostly because the emotional lessons he learns are so simple that they’re actually a little regressive.
The film is beautiful-looking, full of gorgeous outdoor shots of the woods and river where most of the action takes place. The performances are uniformly great – especially the returning Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s goofy stoner uncle, a small but memorable role that’s especially enjoyable because it’s the polar opposite of the intense dramatic performances Shannon is known for. Mud doesn’t zoom in on the gritty details of characters’ emotional states the way Take Shelter did, but it’s not interested in that. It’s interested in telling an adventure story that ends in a sweeping, romantic way, even if that means sacrificing some of the nuance we’ve come to expect from Nichols. Overall, it’s a pretty enjoyable exercise, but filmgoers hoping for something like Take Shelter will have to adjust their expectations a little.