Love isn’t easy or fair and it usually doesn’t make sense. These are hard lessons that we all learn over time and in different ways, some more painful than others. This is one of the central themes of director Jeff Nichols’ third film Mud, an original American tale that is one of the better films to have graced the big screen in the first half of 2013.
The story functions around two young boys in Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). While exploring a mysterious boat that was left stuck in in a tree on an island after a hurricane, they come to discover that there is someone living on the boat. The man turns out to be a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). At first the boys feel threatened by Mud as they find out that he is a fugitive wanted for murder, but something about Mud keeps Ellis curious and coming back to help Mud. As they get closer and closer to him they find out that there is more to Mud’s story that they ever could have imagined, involving the love of Mud’s life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Everything that Mud has done, including his current situation isolated hiding in a boat is because of his love for Juniper. Ellis vows to help reunite the lovers, only to realize that there’s a lot more to the story, and that everything isn’t what it seems. This rings true for a lot in Ellis’ young life, including his parents relationship. He learns that his parents have been becoming distant. With divorce as an immediate possibility, they are likely to lose a house-boat that Ellis’ father relies on for work. To make matters worse for poor Ellis, he thinks he finds love with an older girl, but finds out that it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than he originally believed.
If there’s a common theme surrounding Mud, it’s that love is tough, and sometimes you gotta dig deep and figure out if it’s worth fighting for. In a powerful scene Ellis’ father has a serious conversation with him about love, brutally telling him that you have to be careful with how much you give in to love, because it can be taken away from you just as fast but much more brutally.
Matthew McConaughey continues his recent incredible comeback with a riveting performance as Mud. His performance leaves you perplexed and guessing as to what kind of man Mud is until the very end. There’s a threatening nature to his character but also a sincerity and a kindness that young Ellis takes note of early on. Young Tye Sheridan amazes as Ellis, in a performance that is well beyond his years. He sells you on his every emotion from fierce anger to sensitive emotion, it’s all left there on the table. He works well with his partner in crime, Jacob Lofland who is a tough and reliable sidekick to Sheridan just like Neckbone is to Ellis. There’s also great work from Reese Witherspoon as Mud’s love Juniper, who is the best I’ve seen her in some time. Sam Shepard is also good as the mysterious man Tom Blankenship whose importance comes into play as the film continues on. Since it’s a Jeff Nichols film (who also directed Take Shelter & Shotgun Stories) a role is saved for Michael Shannon who plays Neckbone’s uncle Galen. If I have one complaint it’s that Shannon was underutilized.
What seems like a simple tale spirals into something much more do to a marvelous script and direction by Mr. Nichols. He creates a vivid and stunning portrayal of Arkansas that is a marvel to watch. The performances are all top notch from the casts stars both young and old. They tackle the subject of love in a fresh way that isn’t sappy or typical Hollywood. Mud looks you dead in the eye and doesn’t bullshit you. Love and life can both be tough on us and sometimes we need to be pushed into the mud to come out and realize who we really are. It’s a long ride for young Ellis and his new friend Mud, but they both find out that adult life isn’t always fair, and certainly doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to be.