Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a lovingly old-fashioned boys’ adventure story of the kind that they don’t make much anymore. It’s set in rural Arkansas in what I guess is supposed to be the present, but it’s a 2013 by way of 1972, free of cell phones, video games, and laptops. Fourteen-year-old Ellis and his buddy Neck (short for Neckbone) communicate via walkie-talkie instead of text message, and when Ellis wants to call up his crush he has to look up her family’s number in the phone book.
The film’s haze of nostalgia extends to its time-honored themes of responsibility and masculine ethos. Mud is a male weepie in the Clint Eastwood tradition, a story of fathers and sons, and of the pain of coming into one’s manhood. And yet as much of a relief as it is to see a film that seems guaranteed to appeal to both adult and adolescent viewers—and that doesn’t rely on CGI explosions in an attempt to “hold our attention”—it’s unfortunate that Nichols seems, for the second time, to be restraining his own abilities as a storyteller. As with his previous feature, the powerfully intense Take Shelter (2011), he flubs the ending, as if afraid of what might happen if he doesn’t tie up all of his loose ends. (And, once again, he reveals his weakness for springing surprise twists thirty seconds before the end credits.) It’s a shame, because with these two features it’s become obvious that Nichols has a talent for coming up with good plots. If only he weren’t so bad at rounding them off.