Jeff Nichols makes films about lower class American people stuck in tumultuous situations. He roots in his films in truth, lets his camera gently eavesdrop on the story, and asks his actors to immerse themselves in the world he creates. Nichols’ first feature, the Malick-esque Shotgun Stories, chronicles a feud between two families in constant battle over the father who raised them all. His fever dream of a film, Take Shelter, is a haunting depiction of a man slowly losing touch with reality. And now we’re presented with Mud, an eerie southern tale of innocence lost and adolescent confusion.
The three quickly develop a rapport, in which the boys agree to bring Mud food, and keep his presence private. The boys suspect that Mud is hiding for committing a crime, but it doesn’t matter, Mud brings excitement into their lives in ways too captivating to ignore.
But there is more. Much more. There is the story of a lonely young woman, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), waiting to be reunited with Mud. There is the story of the men watching Juniper, hoping that the battered blonde will lead them to Mud. There is Ellis’ quick transformation into early manhood via love, regret and witnessed parental anguish.
Now, because Mud is played by Matthew McConaughey, we shouldn’t be faulted for not knowing what to expect from the character. As McConaughey has recently proved, the man is capable of provoking intense fear, utter dread, and unexpected humor, sometimes all at once. There’s a current unpredictability to McConaughey that makes his Mud character work so well. I wasn’t sure if I should observe him with trepidation or care – did he deserve my compassion, or should I be more hesitant? It’s yet another complex character McConaughey conveys remarkably. At this point, the actor simply can do no wrong.
Reese Witherspoon, delivering her best work since Walk the Line (if not Election) excels as Juniper. She’s a woman so lost in her own conflict that she may never find any functional resolve. Michael Shannon (the star of Nichols previous two films) puts in steady work as Neckbone’s amusing uncle, while Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon (as Ellis’ parents) let their shared silence speak volumes as an unhappy married couple.
But the real star here is Tye Sheridan, who, as Ellis, delivers a fearless performance of teenage angst. Previously seen as the middle child in The Tree of Life, Sheridan is equipped with a cold stare and a hardened, confident voice that many older, far more popular actors strive for. Despite the film’s title, Mud is in many ways about the failure of youth through Ellis’ eyes. It’s a mystifying performance that had me enthralled throughout.
It’s funny, while watching Mud, I was reminded of a time from my own childhood. I grew up in a small Virginia town that, while not quite as backass country as the town in Mud, was frustratingly limited all the same. Often, there was nothing more to do than get a few friends together and go exploring in the woods. One day, my best friend and I discovered a massive, old, rusted tractor buried deep in the woods. This tractor had a large central compartment that could easily fit four people, and after discovering it, my friend and I claimed it as our own. We visited the tractor routinely, and one day, we were stunned to find cans of food in the tractor, clear evidence to a new inhabitant. The 27-year-old me likes to think that I would’ve ignored a stranger, had my friend and I discovered one. But the 13-year-old me is still curious if I would’ve lingered. A-