Editor’s note: Allison’s review originally ran during Sundance earlier this year, but we’re re-posting it as Jeff Nichols’ film hits theaters in limited release this weekend.
What would be most exciting to two young boys living a slightly boring life along a river bank in Arkansas? An adventure, of course. And that is exactly what Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) think they have found when they come across a peculiar sight — a boat trapped high up in the tree tops thanks to a recent flood. But what the two boys end up finding in that boat is a much bigger adventure because they are not alone, and are not the only ones looking to get it down.
Enter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a charming drifter living on the boat who, unlike the boys, is not looking for adventure, he is looking for a way off the island that the boat (and Mud himself) is trapped on. Ellis is quickly drawn to Mud with his cross-heeled boots and endless stories, but Neckbone is more wary, especially when Mud asks the boys for a favor. Ellis remains intrigued, and it becomes clear that it is not simply the prospect of adventure that has his attention, it is Mud’s story explaining why he is stranded on that island — the pursuit of true love.
Mud begins with the boys discussing a girl Ellis is interested in. When Mud begins telling the boys he is looking to reunite with his own lady love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Ellis’s hope that true love does exist drives him to help Mud try to get it back. As the boys help Mud fix up the boat, his stories of snake bites and growing up on the river (much like they are) begin to intertwine with the boys’ own lives, which continue to carry on despite the addition of Mud into their routines. Mud may be fighting to get back to his life with Juniper, but Ellis is also fighting to keep a relationship together, that of his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson). When things finally come to a head in one of the film’s final, and most explosive, scenes it is remarkable to see the bond that has truly formed between Ellis and Mud, two strangers who may have more in common than it first seemed.
McConaughey turns in a commanding performance as Mud and it is almost as heartbreaking to us as it is to the boys to hear that the majority of his tales might be lies when the easy way they roll off his tongue make you want to believe everything he says. Surrounded by an equally impressive supporting cast which includes Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon, Mud delivers strong performances from even the smallest roles, creating a film that is both immersive and captivating. Witherspoon gets back to her gritty roots (those last seen in Freeway) and creates a palpable connection between Juniper and Mud that makes you question just how exaggerated their love story truly is. And Sheridan and Lofland prove they are young talents to watch. Director Jeff Nichols once again shows audiences he knows how to get unforgettable performances out of his actors while creating a film that is beautifully shot and scored (by David Wingo), making Mud a mesmerizing story to both hear and watch.
The Upside: Memorable performances from both the new and known actors that make up this affecting cast, who work together to bring to life a complex story rooted in universal emotions. Nichols truly takes you into this world and while the story may be a bit unsettling, the performances refuse to allow you to take your eyes off the screen.
The Downside: The three different endings that tie up Mud, and play in succession, are a bit muddled. If a single tone, regardless of which, had been focused on it would have helped wrap up the film on a stronger note.
On the Side: Nichols first made a name for himself at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival with the premiere of his last film, Take Shelter, which went on to win Best International Feature Film at the 7th Zurich Film Festival.