The Films of 2013: Mud

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. 

As the title character (yes, his name is Mud), Matthew McConaughey delivers a commendable performance, one that makes excellent use of his characteristically sleazy charm and broad-as-a-barn Southern accent.  He plays a fugitive with a shady past, hiding out in the woods until he can figure out a way to escape downriver, whom Ellis and Neck discover while playing at the beginning of the film.  The rest of the cast is made up of a veritable who’s-who of great actors: Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon.  It’s Tye Sheridan, as Ellis, who carries the film, however.  (Some viewers may remember him as one of the boys in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.)  He’s given much more to do here; his leveling gaze, his naturalism and his expert ability to modulate complex emotions remind me a bit of Jennifer Lawrence (and he looks like he could be her kid brother).  Nichols is less sure of what to do with his female actors.  Witherspoon and Paulson are stuck in slight, underwritten parts, and although their characters play key roles in the story of Ellis’ coming of age, their flatness is proof that this is, for better and for worse, a boys’ movie, one that may as well be emblazoned with the motto NO GIRLS ALLOWED.

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