Jeff Nichols made clear during the run-up to his 2011 film Take Shelter that he had made a movie about his own anxiety: he was now a father, the world seemed dark and maybe doomed; the film became a testament to the peculiar fears of being a new dad during an era with only grim tides on the horizon. This makes his new film, the altogether engrossing and fun Mud, something akin to a bedtime story, a way to convey to his children the overwhelming but decidedly less grim fact of adolescence and mid-pubescent longing.
Mud has at its heart a friendship between two junior high kids, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland, whose nickname doesn’t get explained), a Tom and Huck pair, two brats living along a river in backwater Arkansas. Ellis, the film’s focus, lives in a houseboat on the river; his parents (both ancillary Deadwood actors) are on the verge of separation. He and Neckbone (himself parentless, tended to by his promiscuous uncle Galen [Michael Shannon]) sneak off pre-dawn downriver in their own tiny motorboat; on an island in the middle of a small lake Neckbone has discovered another, bigger boat trapped aloft between the branches of a tree. The island’s only inhabitant is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive and a bullshitter who nevertheless manages to enlist the boys into bringing him food and boat parts. Mud’s backstory ensorcells Ellis. The boy is on the cusp of his first love and his first heartbreak, so hearing Mud talk about his lifelong affection for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) compels Ellis to do Mud’s bidding. Mud is hiding because he killed a man who did wrong to Juniper; his life emerges as an embattled attempt to keep her, his sweetheart from a young age, somehow in his life despite the continuous waxing and waning of her affection for him.
The men after Mud are bad news, a wealthy clan of killers and bounty hunters from San Antonio. Mud as a story seems content to become a gripping yarn, an almost straightforward caper film. Mud needs to escape his hunters and the police; the boys will bring Juniper to him and the two lovers will abscond together in his raft out to open water and freedom. What makes Mud more than just this story is Nichols’ decision to make the boys his film’s focus. Exciting and easily explored narratives lurk at Mud’s periphery; any chapter from Mud’s life, or the story of the men after him, or even the history of Galen — who for a living digs treasures from the river bottom, sunk by an overlarge metal helmet — would make for a fun and fascinating film. Nichols interest lies openly in the way Ellis grapples with his own emotional growth and the murmuring of his family’s dissolution. He has finally made an overture to the high school girl, out of his league by virtue of height alone, that he believes he loves. That Mud protects Juniper only out of blind love is what makes Ellis’s petty crimes (absconding with a few tin cans of Beanie Weenies, swiping a boat motor) a worthy thing in his own mind. That Juniper manipulates and endangers Mud, almost on a whim, is something Ellis learns roughly.
Nichols offers Ellis a variety of examples for the pitfalls of courtship. Ellis’s own parents are about to separate and seeing the way his father behaves — humiliated, seemingly castrated — informs Ellis’s own anxiety about his first kiss, particularly when the young girl’s wayward cruelty manifests as only a teenager’s can, in a public shaming. Even Galen offers Ellis a perspective, Neckbone’s uncle having decided years earlier to not take any girl too seriously, instead becoming the one who nonchalantly inflicts pain. In one encounter, Galen attempts to explain his worldview to Ellis, but he does so in such oblique terms that Ellis later has to admit to Neckbone that he didn’t have a clue what Galen was on about.
How things play out for Mud remain the stuff of great storytelling, and Nichols happily offers up Mud’s fate without ambiguity or confusion, classic shootout and all — to do less would be a disservice to the type of story Nichols wants to tell. More interesting, though, is how Ellis comes to terms with romance’s vagaries. As he watches adult men in his life grapple with their own fecklessness before women, Ellis also watches Juniper. Ellis launches a haymaker at random dudes at least three times in Mud, always when he sees men being untoward with women. He takes a punch for Juniper, though it does neither much good: after, he watches as Juniper equivocates between her love for Mud and her inability to commit to him. Witherspoon accommodates the character’s indecisive fear well, playing to the limit both confident and hyper-vulnerable.
Though decidedly less ambitious than Take Shelter and lacking that film’s sinister ambiance, Mud remains a gripping, powerful story. The actors acquit their roles well, particularly the boys. Michael Shannon, Take Shelter’s manifest vision of anxiety, becomes in Mud simply solid comic relief. Mud’s father-figure and protector, Tom Blankenship, offers Sam Shepard another chance to confirm himself as a quiet legend. McConaughey’s Mud is powerful, both a capable survivalist and a naive boy at heart; you root for him despite his nonsense. Though Mud chooses not to interrogate themes as grand as those of Take Shelter, it remains a captivating approach to the confusion of adolescence and a convincing nod to the general unease of navigating young love. Nichols becomes not merely an entertaining but a compelling filmmaker by deciding to treat his epic adventure film (snakebites and dirtbikes and all) as an opportunity to introduce his young characters to the difficulties of nascent sexuality. Mud is not only an excellent survival flick but also a chance for Nichols to plot out an altogether separate kind of anxiety and discovery, the unrelenting complications of those first few hormonal teenage years, and the variety of ways boys digress, unceasingly, from those first few encounters.