As two young teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) sneak out from their dysfunctional homes and venture off with a motor boat to their own private wilderness, it appears that someone else has stumbled across their hideout– an old fishing boat stuck in a tree on an island off the Mississippi River. After the boys find canned goods and playboy magazines they search the island and find a disheveled man who refers to himself as “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey). When Mud tells the boys that he is on the island waiting for his true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the idea of living in the woods for unrequited love, rather than enmeshed in conventional struggles, is appealing to Ellis. He agrees to help Mud who has a romanticized vision that once he gets the fishing boat up and running he can meet up with Juniper and start a new life. Ellis shares this vision while Neckbone is along for the ride and a gun Mud promises him once all of the parts have been assembled for the boat by the two boys.
Most filmmakers don’t know what to do with an authentic plot, they assault us with unnatural color or random images—attempting to put some sort of self-serving stamp on a film. This is not the case with Jeff Nichols’ approach, who wrote and directed Mud. He treats his characters like real people struggling for a better life, not as caricatures of the deep south. The respect Nichols gives his characters is displayed by the way he captures their natural elements, although a reference to Wal-Mart is unfortunately uttered– the cooled fish, motor bikes and disheveled river houses are all captured in a romantic and desirable light. This is the South we have ingrained in our literary consciousness of Mark Twain and William Faulkner. Nichols, who is from Little Rock Arkansas, used the same approach with Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, where subtle imagery and remarkable acting told most of the story.
Sheridan, who after a long search beat out 10,000 children for the role of Steve in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, steals this film. With piercing blue eyes that cuts at our emotional center, Sheridan’s ability to allude emotion is startling. All of the actors including Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard, and McConaughey, show us aspects of their acting ability that was previously obscured. Shannon’s face is not present until more than halfway through the film as we first get a glimpse of him in a wet suit after a tryst involving a young woman. With his face hidden from the frame the audience is able to make up their mind about who the character is, a technique which escapes most filmmakers who want to showcase prominent actors in the first frame.
Mud works due to the refined nature of its characters and film style, which subtly tells the tale of two men at different stages in their lives, struggling with the concepts of conventional life. Both Mud and Ellis want to see life in vibrant colors while the rest of the world has resigned itself to black and white.