Set against a bluegrass backdrop, Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (both played exceptionally by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) scavenge through their surroundings to help a wayward, disheveled man named Mud find tools to rescue a tattered boat from out of a towering tree. As they travel back to the island where Mud (played by a striking Matthew McConaughey) roams and hides, the three work together to carry out this seemingly doubtful task.
This is just one of the many moments in Jeff Nichols’ Mud where it appears our three leads are living in a Neverland of sorts. Not worrying about distressed parents, heartbrokenness, or any of that other “real world” junk. Ellis and Neckbone are lost boys and a raggedy man named Mud is Peter Pan. Just imagine those ripped jeans as green leggings.
The plan the three are devising revolves around Mud’s lost love. A love that never feels concrete but is worth fighting for in these guys’ eyes. The problem is Mud’s damsel in distress Juniper (played by a subdued and defeated Reese Witherspoon) is always falling out. She’s getting involved with the wrong company and getting herself into all sorts of trouble – at least, according to Mud.
What starts as a small curiosity pining on a shady homeless individual escalates to a secretive operation as Ellis starts to see more of himself in this enigmatic man. The same can be said both figuratively and, at one point, said quite literally about Mud’s admiration for these inquisitive kids.
Nichols’ film may sound like a mystery for reasons that are insinuated by the young curiosity found in Ellis and Neckbone – and it is – but Mud is much more. It’s an immensely effective movie about developing masculinity as these three main characters learn to grow up in one way or another. It’s a gripping, fantastic watch and you walk away from Nichols’ film having witnessed something incredible with its small scale story and amongst the acting, which includes star making performances from Sheridan and Lofland and a career high for McConaughey.
These performances are so quietly powerful, that they may make some overlook the greatness in other side roles. For instance, the grizzly hard-shelled Tom “the Assassin” Blankenship (played by Sam Shepard) is certainly a memorable portrayal that is as adequate as McConaughey’s role and as distraught as Mud.
Ray McKinnon is very good as Ellis’ father. While playing off a seemingly stereotypical redneck outer layer, McKinnon has the difficult task of being a dislikable hard ass, but also showing a more sympathetic side when he’s emasculated by his wife after he’s fittingly put into place.
Women aren’t represented as the source of all of man’s problems. It’s the refusal and stubbornness of a man that becomes his own worst enemy. Mud, without being heavy-handed, tells a terrific story abut this struggle and how a young mind can realize this apparent pitfall yet still find himself walking in those same footprints. Nichols can be sure he’ll find his outstanding film on many top ten lists come the end of this year.