Slice of Southern life

Arkansan Jeff Nichols creates another poignant classic

Posted: April 26, 2013 at 3:03 a.m.

Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and Ellis (Tye Sheridan) are all working through various daddy issues in Jeff Nichols’ rich and dense family movie Mud.

One way to look at Arkansan Jeff Nichols’ Mud is that it is a movie about relationships that are tenuous and inescapable, desperate and fraught with misplaced romance. It is a movie about facing up to a world indifferent to your wishes, about awaking from the dream of childhood and discovering limitations in the people you love - and loving them anyway. It is a boys’ adventure story graced with magical realism and touched up with some gritty Southern naturalism. It is indisputably one of the best films of its rare type, a thoughtful and accessible movie that, even with a little spasm of violence near the end, might be enjoyed (and even cherished) by all ages.

Clip from the movie 'Mud'

A clip from the movie Mud, which was filmed in various parts of southeast Arkansas. Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, are aboard what they believe too be an abandoned ship in a tree, when they come face-to-face with Mud for the first time. (By Everest Productions)
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While a wall calendar tells us we’re in 2011, a sense of timelessness pervades the film, set in the Arkansas Delta near the confluence of the Arkansas, White and Mississippi rivers. There, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, Tree of Life) lives in a dilapidated if picturesque houseboat with his falling-apart parents, hangdog Senior (Ray McKinnon) and wanting-better Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson). As in Nichols’ films Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, the sense of economic oppression is palpable: Senior is shamed by the provisional nature of his family’s subsistence, which depends on the river property Mary Lee has inherited, from which she wants to escape.

Despite the occasional breaking-in of these adult concerns, Ellis seems to lead a rather idyllic existence, lighting out for explorations and exploits with more feral Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, from the Yell County community of Briggsville). Neck lives with his Uncle Gaylen (Michael Shannon), who seems rather like an overgrown adolescent.

The boys roam the woods and rivers, charting their own territories. One of their more amazing discoveries is a boat moored high in a tree on a river island. It was put there by a flood and the boys mean to salvage it, somehow, someday …

It is on one of their reconnaissance trips to check up on their boat that they discover a stranger has taken up residence in it - a snaggle toothed, wild-haired specimen who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud, we soon discover, was once a boy like Neck and Ellis, an unattached orphan running through the bayous unsupervised. But then he fell in love with beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), whom he has followed and protected like a knight-errant ever since. But Juniper is as flighty as she is lovely, and Mud killed a man who violated her honor. So now he’s hiding out on this island, waiting for her to come to him. They will, he believes, figure something out.

Mud is quite the creation, and McConaughey brings him vividly to life with his soft East Texas drawl, creepy uncle leer and shamanic bearing. Unhinged but wily and given to colorful superstition, he wears a “lucky” shirt with a wolf’s eye (moonstone) sewn into the sleeve to protect him from bullets. In what may be an inside joke, the audience must wait a long time for McConaughey to doff that shirt, which must be magical in that it always remains clean.

Mud almost instantly becomes a kind of father figure to the wounded Ellis, while the more independent Neck regards him a bit more warily. Ultimately Neck strikes a bargain, and the boys agree to help Mud by taking him cans of Beanee Weenees and other provisions.

Then the boys spot Mud’s lady love at the Piggly Wiggly and excitedly convey the news to Mud. She has come to him, but - as usual - she trails trouble. A coterie of Texas heavies (including Paul Sparks from Boardwalk Empire and Little Rock’s Stuart Greer) assembled by the father of the man Mud killed (Joe Don Baker) are looking to exact their own brand of frontier justice on Mud. Further complicating the situation are the roadblocks the police have set up - they also know Mud is in the area.

While McConaughey is rightfully winning praise for his performance, Mud absolutely belongs to Ellis and Neck - to Sheridan and Lofland - naive adolescents on the cusp of dark adult secrets. Much will no doubt be made of their resemblance to Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Ellis is the more civilized and thoughty one while Neck is a little Caliban in a Fugazi T-shirt, and the interplay between the characters (and the young actors) is impeccable. Lofland gets many of the film’s funniest lines, while Sheridan’s Ellis is tender and alert. The pairing is perfect, and there’s not a false moment between these kids.

That remarkable quality of tone carries through the rest of the casting, which includes a lot of overqualified actors in smaller parts. Shannon hasn’t much screen time and his more important role may be talismanic, but his Gaylen is exactly the right sort of bad role model Neck needs. McKinnon is devastating as a man who knows too well his own weakness; the way he delivers a crucial line - “You know I love you” - is heartbreaking in the context of familial failure. Senior has about him an unbearable sadness that could curdle into desperation; like the protagonist of a Larry Brown novel, his biggest enemy may be himself.

Sam Shepard shows up as yet another complicated father figure, and he gives the part his full attention.

If we’re going to quibble - and we must, I suppose, or wear the forever promotional T-shirt of the professional homer and blurb supplier - we might suggest that the film is as long as it is dense, and that some of the underbrush might have been cleared away. Ellis’ infatuation with an older woman might have been trimmed a bit, and while Witherspoon carries off her characterization of the bruised and blowzy Juniper with some aplomb, I wonder if the film might have worked if her character had been merely glimpsed and not encountered, sort of like the blonde in the red Corvette in American Graffiti. (Right, let’s give notes to Jeff Nichols.)

It’s apparent that Nichols has thought a lot about how Mud fits in with American mythology - there is a third act homage to True Grit, and the sudden violence near the end feels like a nod to Sam Peckinpah (though it’s strictly PG-13 bloodshed). I like these flourishes and the aspirations they reflect, but I would have preferred a bit more ambiguity in the ending. (Though Nichols’ ambiguous ending to Take Shelter probably frustrated some moviegoers; maybe he can’t win with endings.)

In any case, Nichols has now made three extraordinary films that seem likely to endure. He writes about big ideas, forced through the prism of small-town (Southern) American lives. He draws from life, building worlds from carefully selected and observed details. He is very, very good at what he does. We should be proud to claim him.

Mud 89 Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker, Stuart Greer Director: Jeff Nichols Rating: PG-13, for for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking Running time: 130 minutes

MovieStyle, Pages 31 on 04/26/2013