Throughout its history the state of Arkansas, which forms the backdrop of Jeff Nichols’ latest film Mud, has repeatedly changed its nickname. Past titles include ‘The Bear State’, ‘The Wonder State’, and the slightly more insulting ‘The Toothpick State’. For 42 years it was ‘The Land Of Opportunity’ before it switched again in 1995 to its current moniker in a bid to increase tourism. Today Arkansas is known as ‘The Natural State’, a name which seems entirely fitting in light of the work by Mud’s director of photography Adam Stone, who peppers this coming-of-age tale of friendship, love and revenge with beautiful, peaceful images of the great outdoors, principally featuring the Mississippi Delta.
Nichols hails from Little Rock, Arkansas, and based his first film Shotgun Stories in the state. The 100-strong cast and crew for Mud – Nichols’ third movie – included over 50 locals, and around 400 other Delta residents were employed as extras, so it ought to be an authentic take on rural life in the region. He and Stone are both graduates of the North Carolina School of the Arts, and have collaborated with fellow alumni David Gordon Green (the director of George Washington and All The Real Girls who also produced Shotgun Stories) and Craig Zobel (who has worked repeatedly with Green and employed Stone as DoP on his recent film Compliance); to date the foursome have been instrumental in creating a new wave of post-millennial Southern Gothic work. (See also the diverse likes of Park Chan-wook (Stoker), Benh Zeitlin (Beasts Of The Southern Wild), William Friedkin (Killer Joe), Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan), Michael Winterbottom (The Killer Inside Me) and Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone).)
Playing the title character is a pre-Dallas Buyers Club, beefed-up Matthew McConaughey. His Mud is on the run from the police, having murdered the abusive partner of his sometime girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and is hiding out on an island in the Mississippi while plotting an escape down the river to the Gulf of Mexico. His dirty clothes and unwashed hair give him the appearance of a shipwreck survivor in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, though he is only a short boat ride away from civilisation. His temporary abode is a boat, although it is lodged surreally among the branches of a tree following an earlier flooding, a device which serves as a constant reminder of the mystery and danger often associated with the river.
Mud’s hideout is discovered by local 14-year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a pairing that recalls the water-tight friendship of Wil Wheaton’s Gordy and River Phoenix’s Chris in Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me in both attitude to life and appearance. (Scenes filmed in the so-called ‘golden hour’ are as prevalent in Mud as they were in Stand By Me, and the two movies share thematic similarities, such as male bonding, coming-of-age, youthful fearlessness and a consistent background adult threat. Both films – particularly Mud, given its setting – owe a wider debt to Mark Twain’s touchstones of American literature The Adventures Of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.) The boys quickly befriend the fugitive and bring him food at his behest before, gradually, stealing engine parts and other materials that will aid his escape. They deliver handwritten notes from Mud to Juniper, which places them in grave danger when relatives of Mud’s victim – played with menace by Paul Sparks and Joe Don Baker – arrive in town with a group of bounty hunters, looking to exact revenge for the killing.
The central character in Mud is Ellis, and Tye Sheridan (The Tree Of Life) delivers a strong performance that certainly does not pale next to McConaughey’s deservedly-lauded turn. Both characters go through a transformation as the story progresses, and the two actors manage to negotiate their respective development with a pleasing subtlety: Ellis must wrestle with common adolescent issues – the marriage failure of his parents and their imminent domestic parting, a first romance with older girl May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) – and his reactions within these sub-plots are illustrated in a believable fashion by the young actor. It helps that these secondary storylines are handled with surety by Nichols, who clearly invests much effort in them; as an example the scene in which Ellis has his first kiss is as warm a cinematic moment as I have seen of late, superbly acted by Sheridan and Sturdivant, but crucially the director keeps it free from mawkishness. These scenes never feel like a distraction from the main plot.
Mud’s transformation in the film is no more unusual, but equally well-realised by McConaughey. At first the character is cocky, laconically imparting wisdom to the teenagers while hiding out on the island. He speaks down to Ellis initially, in a common adult-to-child manner, but eventually he ends up just like the kid: both are rendered impotent by the rejection of the wiser, worldlier girls they are infatuated with (and the suggestion is the same plight has befallen Ellis’s father Senior (Ray McKinnon)). McConaughey also drip feeds fear into his performance, gradually dispensing with the sage-like confident figure we see at the beginning; near the end, as he waves to Juniper from below her motel balcony, he looks more like a scared little boy than Ellis or Neckbone ever do. It becomes clear at this point that it’s not the the twin threats posed by the state police and the bounty hunters that stop Mud from returning to society: it’s the fact that leaving the island means facing up to the fact that Juniper will reject him once more. Interestingly Nichols, who wrote the story and who came up with the idea for Mud in the mid-1990s, wanted McConaughey for the title role all along after seeing the actor in John Sayles’ superb Lone Star.
The main cast members are given excellent support. It came as a surprise to read that this was Lofland’s screen debut, and though his part is not as interesting as that of Sheridan, he is still impressive as the cheeky sidekick Neckbone; Sparks and Baker give the film an undercurrent of menace (particularly the former). (Briefly, on this: The characters on their own are a credible threat, so surrounding them with a posse of nameless and expendable bad guys seems like one of the film’s few mis-steps, as it recalls so many unlikely henchmen-heavy action films and thus (bizarrely) diminishes the level of danger Mud is facing, in the eyes of the viewer. For some reason I keep comparing these vengeance-seeking out-of-towners to the female members of the meth-producing Milton family in Winter’s Bone, who were lower in number but appeared to be way more threatening because they seemed very real, and far removed from stereotypical movie villainy.) The ever-reliable Sam Shepherd exerts necessary authority as Mud’s father figure Tom Blankenship; regular Nichols collaborator Michael Shannon does well with a smaller role as Neckbone’s uncle and guardian Galen; and Witherspoon is fine despite taking a back seat as the kind but pragmatic Juniper. I also enjoyed the performances by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’s parents Mary Lee and Senior. Paulson has been impressive in a series of diverse supporting roles in recent years, and the time has surely come for her to be given a couple of decent leads, at the very least.
The strong ensemble performance is one of the most enjoyable aspects of Mud. It is also pleasing that the broad themes of the story are applied to all of the characters in an unforced, believable way. The clearest of these is the idea of ‘home’ and its impermanence: Ellis and his family learn that the houseboat they live on will be destroyed when they move away, Mud is staying temporarily in a boat, Juniper lays low in a motel room and eventually Tom is also forced to flee from his riverside dwelling. The only constant appears to be the shack shared by Galen and Neckbone. Lives here are in a state of flux, and that fits well with the oft-told coming-of-age tale.
Masculinity and rejection are also key themes. As stated above Ellis is given a harsh lesson in love by May Pearl, rejected as he calls out to her across a car park, and this is echoed in Mud and Senior’s struggles to communicate with Juniper and Mary Lee. Galen is also seen briefly trying to placate an unnamed woman who storms out of his house before speeding away angrily in her car, and Tom lives alone. The men in Mud are not pathetic by any means, but their need to be loved is a common cause of their vulnerability, and not one of them manages to exert any control over the destiny of their respective relationships. It’s no coincidence that Galen plays and discusses the Beach Boys song Help Me, Rhonda, a plea for one woman to help the writer forget about an earlier lover who has rejected him and left for another man.
An air of violence surrounds all of the misfiring male/female relationships. Mud has already killed for love, and presumably would do so again. The man Mud killed beat Juniper, and when the character is introduced she is sporting a black eye. Ellis punches one older boy who is bothering May Pearl (directly before we first see Juniper, interestingly) and reacts in the same way later on when confronting the girl’s new boyfriend. There is no sign of domestic violence between Senior and Mary Lee, and we can only guess at what has happened before, but there is a simmering anger and an acknowledgement that they have passed the point of no return. It may be a touch simplistic to suggest that the role of men in relationships is to pine and the role of women is to make decisions in order to survive or get the best for themselves, but I like these thematic echoes.
The relationship between father and son is also examined. Mud acts as a father figure to Neckbone and Ellis, eventually. Ellis is given lessons in the value of money and hard work by his father. Neckbone’s dad has bailed and he is raised by his uncle Galen, who is arguably a bad role model and arguably a very good one, depending on your own point of view. Tom is a father figure to Mud, and for much of the film the question of whether he is Mud’s real father is bandied around. Baker’s grieving King has lost one son and is reliant on another for revenge. There is a degree of love in all of these relationships, and they inform many of the actions of the male protagonists.
To me it feels as though Mud grapples with all of these ideas adequately, though the film does not tell us anything new about the average male psyche (whether that be Arkansas or anywhere else) or the process of growing up and becoming a man. Still, thought has been invested in all of these characters, and the story benefits from a slow pace and an attention to detail regarding the lives imagined.
The film gradually builds to a bloody, melodramatic climax, and this is admittedly well-staged, but it’s disappointingly predictable and it’s a sudden, unwelcome reminder that you’re watching a movie – i.e. the primary concern is to entertain and please the widest number of audience members possible (apologies for the repeated comparison, but it just occurred to me that another reason Winter’s Bone is so worthy of admiration is because it rejects those things; that movie manages to feel simultaneously American with its setting and plot and un-American in the way it presents those two things). Nichols at one point seems to opt for an ambiguous ending before tacking on an explanatory, upbeat epilogue. I’m ambivalent about this; I certainly don’t hate the ending as it stands but wonder if it saps some of the strength from the movie, finishing all too cleanly and neatly when what I really wanted is…mud. Given that the Mississippi is often spoken of as a ‘mysterious’ river an open ending may well have been fitting. In summary, though, this is a well-considered take on the coming-of-age drama and it contains some memorable and nuanced performances.
Directed by: Jeff Nichols
Written by: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
Running Time: 130 minutes