While watching Jeff Nichols’ latest film Mud I was transported back to being in my bedroom as a 14 year old. One of my favourite books to read from cover to cover on more than one occasion was Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes from young adult novelist Chris Crutcher. It was the story of a young, overweight, high school outcast who with the help of his religious minded best friend and a more closed off acquaintance trying to come of age against some pretty heavy adult level stuff. One of their friends, the titular girl with horrible burns over most of her face thanks to childhood abuse, is in danger from her estranged father, and the girl the main kid is sweet on has recently had an abortion she’s keeping secret from her religious boyfriend, family, and friends.
I was so enthralled with this story that I must have read the book no less than a dozen times and even made a screenplay out of it thinking that it would make a great movie and some day I would have enough money to get the rights to make it into a feature. When I got older and I kind of drifted away from reading the works of Crutcher, Lois Duncan, and Christopher Pike, I realized that those books really don’t make great material for movies. They are so overloaded with adolescent emotion and the desire to be grown up that they really only appeal to teenagers at a very primal level.
While the plots are different, for better and worse Mud is that same kind of story and the beats hit are eerily similar. It’s an oddly nostalgic film to make, but Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) mostly makes things work in his highest profile effort to date. It exactly encapsulates what it’s like to read one of those novels from the 80s or 90s, specifically one written for predominantly male readers. Nichols reasserts himself as an intriguing voice in filmmaking after only three features, but it’s also easily the least of his efforts to date. That comment shouldn’t be taken as a deterrent, though.
14 year old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live along the riverbank in Arkansas and sneak about the waterways on an old motorboat. One day they happen upon an island with a boat mysteriously stranded high above the ground in the trees. Living in that boat is a snaggletoothed, natty haired drifter with a pistol known simply as Mud (Matthew McConaughey). The boys strike up an uneasy friendship with the man, despite knowing he’s wanted by the police for shooting a man. They agree to help him get food and supplies to help him free the boat and put him back in touch with the reason he’s on the run and the one reason he came to town: the damaged woman Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who serves as Mud’s only occasionally requited crush since childhood. The man he shot was the son of wealthy Texas restaurateur and the reason she can no longer have kids, or so the perpetually fibbing Mud says.
Along the way there are plenty of life lessons for Ellis to learn. He learns how to deal with girls. He understands that while elders are to be respected for their experience that it’s okay to question them. He learns the nature of responsibility. He starts to know the difference between love and flirtation. He finally comes to understand betrayal and what it’s like for his parents to go through the early stages of what’s shaping up to be a nasty divorce. He finds out repeatedly that violence isn’t the way to solve things even when it’s in the name of chivalry. It’s all in service of illustrating how Ellis could easily become a person like Mud, and how the strange allure of that might seem noble if viewed in the right light.
It’s a 130 minute film about growing up, and plenty of ground is covered outside the A-story. It’s a classic young adult storytelling technique because when writing for people of a certain age – the kind that feel every major feeling in life with the same urgency one might greet the end of the world – that’s just how they experience life.
It’s an equally brave and problematic approach to storytelling that Nichols is employing here. No stranger to large emotions and social posturing following the similarly fantastical and impassioned adult drama of Take Shelter, Nichols has been able to walk a fine line between the melodramatic and the realistic. His characters here are all rich and nuanced right down to those who don’t have a ton of dialogue in supporting roles. No one in this community is particularly happy, all of them fearing the future in their own ways. The point here isn’t just that Ellis is growing up, but the world around him is being forced to do the same thing at the same time.
The problem with this kind of carpet bombing of the audience with life lessons is that it makes for a film that feels a lot longer than it is (and it’s indeed already a bit longer than it needs to be). When we recall our teenage years, we kind of skew the memory so that every rotten thing that happened to us happened at the same time because that’s how we remember feeling and experiencing all of it. That’s the kind of feeling that Nichols seems to be striving for, but it doesn’t always make for the smoothest ride, especially when the film reaches an inevitable and foreshadowed conclusion that’s exciting to watch but still comes from the same style of paperback writing and teenage wish fulfilment when it craves for something a bit more realistic. There’s also the matter of Nichols setting this in a smaller community, which leads to a suspicion that the film might be so strangely autobiographical with regards to the emotions in play that the writer-director might not be entirely comfortable writing for teenagers.
Rough edges aside, though, Nichols is still one of the most talented and thoughtful up and coming filmmakers working in American cinema today. He has a way with scenery and motion that few others possess. His on-screen emotions come not only from his actors and his script, but from his epic sense of scope and scale. Instead of showing Ellis’ life as something hermetic and closed off within a rural community, it portrays the world as a wide world of wonder and terror, from islands with running beaches to expansive Piggly Wiggly parking lots.
His actors also bring a lot to the table. Sheridan, previously seen in Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, gives a young star making performance that will be remembered for quite some time to come. It’s the kind of role young people are rarely given anymore, and he’s mesmerizing to watch in the lead. Lofland plays the best friend role with just enough edge to still make him likeable. McConaughey continues his recent streak of excellent performances as the equally charming and repulsive title character whose sympathy for those around him is at constant war with his desire for self preservation. Witherspoon has a smaller role, but it’s remarkable what she can do in scenes where she has almost no dialogue whatsoever to convey what she’s going through and her conflicted nature. Sam Shepard shows up in a typically strong part as the wise old sage across the river who knows Mud and is reluctant to help. Nichols most frequent collaborator Michael Shannon shows up in a memorable bit part as Neckbone’s horndog uncle. Faring almost as well as Sheridan, however, is the always underrated Ray McKinnon (who seriously needs more work like this and people should hire him immediately) as Ellis’ gruff, but loving father.
Mud came out in the States a couple of weeks ago and has been doing pretty spectacular business in limited release and it’s easy to see why. It’s a story that everyone who either is or has passed the age of 14 can almost immediately identify with and not even realize how much of it they remember or understand on an emotional level. It’s certainly Nichols’ most commercial effort to date, and hopefully it leads to him getting a lot more work. If he can make something as potentially top heavy as Mud work, there’s no telling what he can do with a larger budget and a bigger canvas.