2011 was the breakout year for writer/director Jeff Nichols. His film, Take Shelter, received a lot of critical notice (deservedly so) and cinephiles probably wondered whether he could follow it up adequately. Audiences wouldn’t have to wait too long, as he’s back now with Mud.
Although the movie does include Michael Shannon (marking the third collaboration between the actor and Nichols), he plays a supporting character this time around. It’s Matthew McConaughey that takes top billing, as a mysterious man befriended by two kids in a small town along the Mississippi river. He’s there to meet up with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon), only there are some people who’d like to get their hands on him for a previous misdeed and all parties involved realize she’s the bait for a deadly trap.
That’s … a really odd synopsis … but I don’t want to give everything away and of more importance than the traditional plot development is the kind of exploration Nichols is attempting. Sure, there’s the dramatic tension and cat & mouse games being played by McConaughey and most of the adults but all of that is structure for the manner in which father/son relationships are being examined.
The true protagonist of the movie is Tye Sheridan, a decent kid just trying to find his way in life; balancing both remarkable compassion and a gigantic desire to prove himself. He wants what most teenage boys want, some adventure and to be in a relationship with that hot girl a few years ahead of them in school. His best friend (Jacob Lofland) goes by the moniker Neckbone and the pair gallivant around and act like kids their age are supposed to act. Their discovery of an abandoned boat, and McConaughey nearby, steer them into a world beyond their years but they’re eager to impress this straight-talker who treats them like adults and help a woman seemingly in need of help; quickly finding themselves over their head in the process.
All of the performances, especially that of Sheridan, Lofland, and McConaughey, are excellent. Nichols really understands the locale in which he’s placed these characters and everything feels remarkably authentic. Had there not been a significant number of well-known actors, this could almost have passed at times for a documentary of life in the region. The cinematography is superb, and many of the scenes involving cruising down the river are so well shot that it almost felt like 3D (just without any of the hassle of those tinted glasses and general failure accompanied by the technology at the moment).
It’s understandable that some audiences may find the pacing a bit on the slow side but rather than stemming from a place of indecision, it’s clear that Nichols is in control of the proceedings and is just allowing the environment and characters within it to soak into your own psyche. His treatment of so many different father/son relationships is spectacular. Rather than feeling forced or like not enough time was devoted to any one set of characters, the end result is a tapestry of character studies and encompasses so many different approaches to how the dynamic works.
Simply put, Mud is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in 2013, and my esteem only grew as time passed between the screening and when I wrote this review. It will likely remain on my radar come awards season and audiences more interested in delving into the characters and appreciating good filmmaking than car chases and explosions should definitely check this out. Even though it’s not a big budget film and the story itself can be enjoyed in the comfort of your own home, it’s shot so beautifully that the trip to the theaters is worth the effort and expense. But no matter where you see it, the important thing is that you do … as long as you like quality movies. Otherwise, I’m sure there’s another Michael Bay film in the works that you can see with your brain safely in the off position.
Mud is rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.