The water is wide. That sentence was floated around my mind while I was watching the Mississippi river and the surrounding landscapes in Jeff Nichols’ latest film “Mud”. It looks plain and mundane at first, but the movie has a vivid sense of specific locations along with the natural beauty inside them, and we are naturally drawn to its rich coming-of-age drama wide enough to encompass many story elements flowed into it.
The story is mainly told through the eyes of two young boys at the beginning of their adolescent years. Ellis(Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone(Jacob Lofland) have their special place outside their river town in Arkansas, and it is a small unnamed island in the middle of the river. We see Ellis sneaking out of his boathouse home without being noticed by his parents early in the morning, and then he and Neckbone go to their island by their motorboat for having their own free time for a while.
In the island forest, they find a big abandoned boat stuck in the middle of a tree, which was probably swept to that spot due to a big flood. They decide to have that boat for themselves, but they realize there is someone in the island besides them, who must have been living in that boat for several days. They soon meet the guy in the question on the beach when they are about to get back to their town, and that is how Mud(Matthew McConaughey) and the boys encounter each other for the first time.
Mud, a shabby young fugitive who needs some help from others for his personal plan, asks the boys to deliver him some food, and then he also asks them to do the other things beside that as the boys come to spend more time with him in the island. Although the boys instantly discern that there is something suspicious about Mud, he is one of those charming guys who can easily persuade others to do something for them, and he offers a tempting deal to the boys; if they help him repair the boat for his plan, he will give them his gun. Despite their initial suspicion on Mud, Ellis decides to help him, and Neckbone willingly follows his best friend’s decision.
As they help Mud without telling anyone, the boys come to know more about Mud and his plan. He is determined to reunite with his girl Juniper(Reese Witherspoon) and then get away with her, and, as a teenager boy who begins to sense the estranged relationship between his parents(Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and becomes more aware of the girls in his town, Ellis comes to believe Mud’s sincere feeling toward Juniper. Not so surprisingly, Mud becomes not only his friend but also his romantic idol with a little mythic quality(their first encounter scene is imbued with a bit of mysterious feeling – how can Mud suddenly appear behind them out of nowhere?), and that is not changed much even when Ellis comes to know later that Mud is a wanted man being chased after by the police and others for a crime he unwisely committed because of his love.
However, as it happened in many other memorable coming-of-age dramas, an innocent heart is bound to be broken in one way or the other in the end as one step toward adulthood, and Ellis’ story is no exception. Handling his story with quiet humor and understated sensitivity, the director/writer Jeff Nichols gives us the acute moments of adolescent heartbreak and disillusionment. Ellis falls in love with one of older high school girls and she seems to accept his rather rough courtship, but he later painfully realizes his misguided notion of their relationship. The relationship between his parents is far more deteriorated than he thought, and he may have to accept the resulting inevitable change sooner or later. In addition, as the situation becomes more serious and dangerous than before, the past between Mud and Juniper turns out to be not as romantic as Ellis wanted to believe.
The movie rolls its main plot and other subplots together effortlessly without losing balance in its leisurely pace, and the result is a rich mixture of bittersweet coming-of-age tale, tarnished love story, and intimate character drama. It is further enhanced by its realistic atmosphere, and the cinematographer Adam Stone, who previously collaborated with Nichols in his first two films, gives us several wide and beautiful sights of the Mississippi river and the nearby plains while vividly capturing the local atmosphere of Arkansas. The river looked like a big lake to me at times, and I was especially impressed by a brief twilight shot on the beach which nearly approaches to the ambiance of black and white film.
Nichols also draws the excellent performances from his cast. As I said before several times in my previous reviews, Matthew McConaughey has been recently getting the good roles he is born to play after long years of being wasted in disposable films, and he gives a terrific performance again here in this film(As a matter of fact, Nichols already decided to cast McConaughey for the film when he wrote his screenplay). Mud turns out to be unreliable as suspected, but he is still a likable guy thanks to McConaughey’s electrifying performance, and the movie does not let Mud be turned into a simple case of fallen idol even when Ellis becomes angry and disillusioned after learning some important facts about Mud through Juniper and Mr. Blankenship(Sam Shepard), Ellis’ close neighbour who has known Mud since Mud was young and whose close relationship with Mud in the past might have been not that different from the growing relationship between Mud and Ellis at present.
Two young actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland hold the center of the story with their unadorned performances, and they are supported well by the adult performers surrounding them. Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, and Michael Shannon are absolutely convincing as the people who have been living in their town for years, and Reese Witherspoon, whose career has been rather lukewarm recently since her Oscar win, finally gets a chance to fully utilize her talent as a weary woman as messy and flawed as the man she loves; the wordless moment between her character and Mud is understated but effective none the less, and the same thing can be said about the last scene of the movie, which says a little on the surface but tells a lot to us through its mood and performances. The movie also gives some human aspects to its bad buys in the story, and, as a vengeful old man with the personal score to settle with Mud, Joe Don Baker subtly suggests in his brief scenes that he may be not as evil as Mud describes to the boys despite what he is going to do for punishing Mud.
Jeff Nichols made a stunning debut with “Shotgun Stories”(2007), a somber but tense family drama with a touch of classic tragedy, and then he gave us “Take Shelter”(2011), an equally intense story about a man getting disturbed by his ominous dreams. Both films drew our attention to their universal human stories through the distinctive and specific backgrounds, and “Mud” is no exception. With the rural mood evocative of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, it leads us to a familiar but touching coming-of-age drama about friendship, love, loyalty, redemption, and maturation, and we can clearly sense the changes inside its characters in the end. It hurts to grow up, but it is always better to grow up as our life flows with us.