In the Arkansas Delta the deadliest people are not the strangers who hideout on deserted islands. Nor are they the bounty hunters lurking in broad daylight hoping to catch sight of their prey. The most dangerous people are in fact women.
When looking at all the males featured in Jeff Nichols’ latest film Mud, they all have something in common. Each of them is suffering from pain caused by the women they loved. Even those mourning for loved ones can pinpoint their grief back to the actions of a particular female. Despite the sullen view that some of the characters possess, Mud is far from a misogynistic film. Instead, it is a rich character study of men who are broken and, in some cases, are in desperate need of healing.
The film tells the story of two teenaged friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who come across a boat stuck in a tree on a small island in the Mississippi River. The boys eagerly claim the vessel as their own, but soon find signs indicating that someone may currently be living there. The mysterious stranger occupying the boat is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a man armed only with a rifle and his lucky shirt. Claiming to originally be from the region, Mud tells the lads that he is waiting to meet up with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Despite being a bit skeptical of Mud’s story, Ellis and Neckbone eventually befriend Mud and agree to help him in his quest to fix the boat. Aside from his encounters with Mud, Ellis must also deal with issues in his personal life. His parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are headed for divorce and Ellis is navigating the rocky ride that comes with falling in love for the first time. Ellis’ life soon becomes further complicated when Mud’s past finally catches up with him and put everyone’s life in jeopardy.
Jeff Nichols is quickly becoming a director who excels in capturing the male emotion like no other. While a more straightforward film then his previous work, Take Shelter, Mud is yet another riveting character driven drama. The men in Nichols’ film struggle to find their place in a world in which they have been emotionally left behind. Characters like Mud and Ellis’ father, Senior (McKinnon), are stuck in their notions of love. They are too blinded by their love, and eventually love related pains, to realize that the women they love have long evolved emotionally.
It is this romanticized male notion of what it is to love, especially in relation to manhood, which makes Ellis’ coming-of-age tale so intriguing. Similar to Mud, Ellis believes that when you are in love, you do anything to keep it. This includes punching out the person trying to interfere with said love. In this naive view it is considered a sign of weakness to let love slip away. What the men in Mud fail to realize, until it is too late, is that it is not good to have the person you love solely define who you are.
Ellis’ father blames his wife for many of the hardships that the divorce will cause their family. In his mind she is the villain who is doing this to him. However, it is Senior who actually puts himself in the rut he is currently in. The divorce serves as a harsh wake-up call that it is time to get his life back on track. It takes Mud much longer, some could argue too long based on what happens in the last act, to come to this state of clarity. By the time he is finally willing to break the destructive cycle, the weight of the past is already baring down on him.
Mud is such a fascinating study of the male psyche that the action that takes place in the last act feels almost unnecessary. While it does a solid job of tying up the narrative, it is not as engaging as say Ellis’ arc or even the arc of minor characters like Neckbone and his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Mud is a film whose strength comes not in the tale of revenge, but in its tale of love and loss. It is a small but powerful film that perfectly captures the heartache and misplaced notions that men often have when it comes to the opposite sex. Filled with wonderful performances all around, Sheridan and McConaughey in particular are sensational; Mud is a film that should not be missed. It is one of the best films you will see this year.