If you’ve never heard of Jeff Nichols… you know, it makes me sad just typing that. It breaks my heart to look at the poster for today’s movie without reading the words “From the writer and director of Take Shelter” on it. That movie was a work of genius, undeniably one of the most underrated films released in 2011, and it seems like nobody else saw it. What the hell, people?!

In any case, when I heard that Mud was Nichols’ next feature, I was determined to see it at the first opportunity. I expected great things from Nichols, and he didn’t disappoint.

Our stage is set in a podunk little Arkansas town, just outside DeWitt. Many of the locals either live near the river (in trailers) or on top of the river (in floating houses). They make their living off the river, either by catching and selling fish or dredging up junk that washes downstream. It’s not exactly a booming trade, as you can imagine. In fact, these people represent a dying lifestyle and they may very well die along with it.

Anyway, our protagonist is 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who was previously seen in Tree of Life. Kid’s building quite a pedigree for himself, ain’t he?). He’s the son of a slightly broken family, but he’s heard of a possible escape. His best friend (inexplicably named “Neckbone,” played by Jacob Lofland) has heard tell of an abandoned boat that washed ashore during the last flood.

The two of them run away from home and head toward an uninhabited island in the river, where they find the abandoned boat. It has indeed washed ashore. In fact, it somehow beached itself about 20 feet above ground in a tree. The boys quickly claim the boat as their own, intending to use it as their own personal tree fort hideaway. The only problem is, someone else claimed it first.

Matthew McConaughey plays a man with nails in the shape of a cross in his left heel. His shirt has wolf’s eyes sewn into the sleeve for protection, and he frequently lights bonfires to ward off bad luck. The guy’s homeless, living on the island for reasons unknown, and quite eager to stay hidden. However, because he’s so badly in need of help, he offers to give the boys their boat if they’ll only bring him some food for a while.

The only name he offers is “Mud.” If he has another name, we never learn what it is.

By and by, we learn that Mud fell in true and everlasting love with a beautiful woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Unfortunately, she went and left Mud for someone who turned out to be a total asshole. He eventually did some damage that Juniper couldn’t walk away from, so Mud went and killed the jerk as payback. Unfortunately, Juniper’s abusive ex-lover happened to be the son of a very wealthy family. They were able to hire an army of mercenaries and a platoon of elected officials for the purpose of exacting payback against Mud. Meanwhile, Juniper has agreed to meet Mud at this Arkansas island so they can run away together and live happily ever after.

Oh, and if you think that information qualifies as spoiler material, remember that this is Mud talking. Any or all of that could be total bullshit.

The performances are all extraordinary, but the entire film hinges on two actors in particular. The first of them is obviously Matthew McConaughey. I don’t know how he manages to be so grungy and so charismatic at the same time, but it’s a unique talent that McConaughey excels at. This role feels like a natural extension of his work in Killer Joe and Magic Mike: It’s dangerously easy to like Mud, even if it’s hard to completely trust him. Mud dances across so many moral and intellectual tightwires, making it hard to pin down anything about him for sure, yet he somehow exudes a sincere and genuine aura. He’s a compelling character, powered by an incredible performance.

Getting back to the story, you might be wondering why Ellis and Neckbone would be so quick to trust this shady character. Well, they have different reasons. For Neckbone, it’s all about that typical juvenile fascination with growing up. He tries to talk like an adult, but he can only use the word “shit” in every other sentence. He tries to act like a ladies’ man, but he’d have no idea what to do with a lady if he ever actually got one. So of course he’s drawn to someone like Mud, who’s got lifetimes of tragic experience written all over his face. The kid wants to be a badass, and he’s hoping that Mud will help a little bit to show him how.

There’s a little bit of that with Ellis as well, but his primary motivation is very different. See, Ellis has a very idealistic perception of love. He doesn’t just believe in true and everlasting love, he thinks that’s the only kind of love there is. Unfortunately, that idea is challenged at every turn. His parents are on the verge of divorce, and he can’t understand why. He’s got a crush on an older girl (May Pearl, played by newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant), he thinks that his crush qualifies as love, and he can’t understand why she doesn’t love him back.

So then Mud comes along and spins a tale about two star-crossed lovers who are living proof that eternal and unshakable love really does exist. On some mental and emotional level, Ellis seems to think that if things can work out between Mud and Juniper despite impossible odds, then surely things can work out between his parents, and with May Pearl as well. But of course, that isn’t how the world works.

Through Juniper, Ellis learns the hard lesson that emotions are more than just black and white. “Love” is a deceptively simple name that we give to a massive host of conflicting thoughts and feelings. Two people can be completely and totally in love, without ever doing anything bad to each other, and still be totally wrong as a couple. It’s not only possible but depressingly common for good people to do bad things for stupid reasons. But try telling that to a 14-year-old kid.

In case it isn’t already obvious, Tye Sheridan is the second big keystone actor in this picture. In his performance, Sheridan makes it abundantly clear that Ellis is quite intelligent, though he’s governed by emotions to an unhealthy degree and he thinks that he knows more about the world than he really does. That doesn’t make him stupid, however, that just makes him a teenage boy. It also helps that Ellis is way tougher than he looks. Though his morals and his beliefs about love may be misguided, he will throw a punch to defend them without a second thought. He won’t be afraid to get hit back for it, either. It’s easy to admire that kind of courage.

As for the supporting cast, I’ve got to say that there isn’t a single weak link among them. Jacob Lofland does a fine job of playing a scrappy and loyal best friend/comic relief. There’s also his uncle (Galen, played by Take Shelter alumnus Michael Shannon) who appears briefly to offer our protagonists a few pearls of wisdom. Galen also provides a bit of relationship advice from the perspective of a rogue who’s always between one-night stands. It’s not a big role, but Michael Shannon — being Michael Shannon — makes it memorable.

Then we’ve got Ellis’ parents. The general situation is that Ellis’ mother wants to move out of the floating house and into a town apartment. Mary Lee is tired of life on the river, you see. She wants a fresh start and a more modern life for her family. The drawback, of course, is that her husband and her son have both grown too attached to river life and refuse to let go of it. Unfortunately, they don’t really have a choice. Strictly speaking, the floating house was handed down to Mary Lee from her father, which makes it her property to dispose of as she sees fit. If she wants it gone, the local port authority will make sure that it’s gone.

(Side note: Mary Lee is played by Sarah Paulson, whom you might remember as Elizabeth Olsen’s maternal older sister in Martha Marcy May Marlene. What’s that? You don’t remember that performance? Because you never saw that movie? *heavy sigh* Why do I even bother?)

Ellis’ father, known only as “Senior,” is played by veteran character actor Ray McKinnon. This guy is like “Beasts of the Southern Wild lite.” Though Senior clearly loves his family, there’s a clear implication that he’s capable of some strong abuse with enough alcohol in him. More importantly, Senior is fighting to maintain a particular way of life that’s rapidly growing extinct, though he’s resentful of the fact that it’s a losing battle.

But the most interesting thing about Senior is that his continued survival is a great point of pride for him. He has a strict code of honor that’s all about respecting a man’s livelihood, pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps, etc. This in spite of the fact that his work is only made possible because of the property handed down to Mary Lee from her daddy. Without that, he’s nothing. His entire lifestyle is built on a house of cards, and McKinnon turns in an amazing scene when Senior finally comes to that realization.

Getting back to Mud’s side of the story, Reese Witherspoon was perfectly cast as Juniper. Her performance and her makeup both do a lot to portray a woman who was once young and beautiful until life happened. The woman looks and acts like a broken heart personified. Honestly, it’s been so long since Witherspoon had a decent dramatic role that I forgot she had such an amazing performance left in her. I guess all it takes is the right filmmaker to remind everyone why she won an Oscar.

Elsewhere, Sam Shepard (yet another prolific character actor) appears as Tom Blankenship. Though he starts out as your typical “spooky old recluse who lives across the way,” we later learn that he’s Mud’s oldest friend. In fact, he’s the closest thing to a father that Mud ever had. Tom has known Mud forever, and he clearly loves the man, but he’s still ashamed of all the bullshit Mud has said and done over the year. He provides an honest and impartial perspective on Mud, which is something this film sorely needed. Plus, as someone whose wife and child died many years ago, he can provide yet another angle on the overarching theme of love.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give mention to the legendary character actor Joe Don Baker. He plays the wealthy and powerful man whose son was killed by Mud. He also has another son, played by Paul Sparks as your basic thug. The characters are admittedly weak, but the actors still give strong and memorable performances.

Visually, the movie is beautifully ugly. Though it never reaches the level of grittiness that “Beasts” did, this movie still does an amazing job of using earthly tones to express the connection with the Arkansas wilderness. The cinematography also uses handheld camerawork to wonderful effect, making it just shaky enough to add a level of emotional intimacy.

Then we’ve got all the various motifs that this movie throws at us. Snakes and serpents, for example, serve a great deal of symbolic importance. In fact, pretty much everything that Mud attaches superstitious importance to serves as a symbol of something or other in this movie. However, my personal favorite motif is that of boats. Obviously, the symbol of boats as freedom is nothing new in cinema, but this film takes it a step farther. Remember, this movie is about people who live on the water. As such, boats aren’t just transportation for them, but shelter. All too frequently, the movie presents boats as places of safety from the outside world. They don’t just represent freedom, they represent the idea of home.

So are there any nitpicks to be found? Well, I’ll admit that the pacing does get a little wonky in places. There are a few times when the movie stumbles while trying to juggle its characters and plotlines. Additionally, there’s a story point near the end that involves a stolen motor, though the matter is never really resolved. There’s also a point of ambiguity in the ending, which — in my humble opinion — really should have stayed ambiguous. Still, these issues are barely worth mentioning and didn’t lessen my enjoyment of this movie in any significant way.

Mud is indubitably one of the best coming-of-age films I’ve ever seen. Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan anchor a phenomenal cast of intriguing characters, and Jeff Nichols continues to prove himself as an arthouse director to watch. The visuals are great, the score is wonderful, and the central theme of adolescent love is poignantly expressed. Despite a few negligible missteps toward the end, I have no problem giving this a strong recommendation. Do not let this one pass you by.

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