In the heart of the American South, two adolescent young men--it just doesn't feel right to call them "boys"--find a fugitive man hiding on an island in the middle of the immense Mississippi river. No, this isn't a Mark Twain story. It does hold on to the timeless character of Twain's tales--an innocent sweetness wrapped up with weighty moral and spiritual issues, all carried along by the great river. Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-olds from small-town Arkansas with a weathered motor boat, are seeking adventure in the form of a boat lodged high in a tree. What they find is Mud, the titular character of Jeff Nichols' latest American filmic masterpiece. Mud is aptly portrayed by Matthew McConaughey with a dangerous Southern charm and rugged idealism. Mud is a man on the run, and the boys decide to help the magnetic absconder.
I love films about teens and youth ministry, and Ellis is one of the best embodiments of a young teen I've seen on film. Portrayed by Tye Sheridan (the youngest brother in Malick's The Tree of Life), Ellis is idealistic, naive, rash, and courageous. He strolls into adult situations with a quiet confidence beyond his fourteen years. He asks out the senior girl without a drop of insecurity or insincerity. He still says "ma'am" and "sir" to his parents, but also talks about girls with Neckbone. Ellis is a romantic, pining for true love, outraged when he cannot seem to find it for himself or in the adult relationships he observes. Bearden Coleman's insightful analysis of Mud and other films set in the American South is spot on:
With much of its focus on Ellis, Mud is in many ways unashamedly a teen film—particularly of the sort exemplified by, and I mean this in the best possible way, The Karate Kid (1984), or any number of films about the scrappy, outsider kid who gets the popular girl. (The comparison might not be too far off when you consider that Nichols, at thirty-four years old, is a child of the 80s, a decade in which kids with VCRs absorbed heart-on-its-sleeve fare like Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986), and Say Anything (1989)).
Ultimately, the film's reach is broader than teenage love. In fact, there's not a romantic relationship in the film that isn't in trouble, from Ellis's parents' separation, to Mud's hot-and-cold relationship with Juniper, down to Ellis's teen fling with May Pearl. In this way, the film reveals itself to be more concerned with the perils of the heart and less with the physical hazards of the unruly South.
In the end this is Ellis's film, not Mud's. After all, Mud has already chosen violence as his way of dealing with love's heartache. Now it's Ellis's time to choose how he will move on.This is a story of visionaries. Where Nichol's previous film, Take Shelter, told the story from the perspective of an isolated visionary, Mud focuses on the visionary's followers and fellow idealists. As Ellis wrestles with the conflict between his ideals about love and the broken realities before him--his parents are on the verge of divorce, his high school crush may or may not share the same attraction, and Mud's "true love" of his childhood flame, Juniper, seems destined for downfall--he begins to form his adult identity. Questions begin to surface, like who am I? and what is love? and am I capable of giving and receiving love? and where do I fit in this world? Autonomy from his parents, affinity with Mud, and the boldness to make ethical decisions and take action to carry them out all stream from this boy like a slow-moving unstoppable river, driven and shaped by the currents.
I realize I haven't touched much on the narrative of Mud. Perhaps its best that I don't. Nichols has the unique gifting of being both a capable storyteller and visual poet, melding narrative and imagery together and raising up films of weight and sustenance. It is both straightforward and nuanced, unambiguous yet with a few surprising elements that make it unique. Mud speaks for itself. Mud will speak for himself, and the idealistic Ellis's will follow and be baptized in the river of an ideal love.