A Movie Called Mud


Set in the bayou of rural Arkansas, Mud unfolds as slowly as the river on which it is set. And that's a good thing — it's a back porch story crawling with snakes and daddy longlegs, one that ought to be savored like a mint julep as it develops toward its unexpectedly thrilling climax.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys on the cusp of manhood. They're old enough to be talking about girls, but young enough to be looking for a clubhouse. As Mud opens, the boys are pushing off in a ramshackle motorboat to explore an island where they find the perfect magical clubhouse — a cabin cruiser that has lodged high in a tree, probably during a storm that flooded the river the previous season. There they meet a mysterious drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who engages the boys as his gofers by urging them to bring him food and supplies from town and promising to pay them if they do.

Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to come and join him. Juniper is the love of his life. He has loved her since he was Ellis' age. He knows she will come, and when she does, Mud can escape. Meanwhile, he becomes the leader of this strange little club of boys.

Neckbone is wary. He's suspicious of this stranger with the gun in his waistband who is waiting for a girl but is afraid to be seen in public. He wants to go home and never come back. But Ellis is more open to helping the fugitive. Ellis is looking for something, and Mud seems to represent what that "something" is. It isn't adventure, exactly, although that is certainly part of the attraction; it's something deeper.

Ellis is late returning to their houseboat, where his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), has already iced and loaded the day's catch of fish that they will sell door-to-door. At the end of the day Senior withholds half of Ellis' pay because he was late. "I work you hard because life is hard," he says, but he says it kindly. He is simply teaching Ellis a lesson: be an ant, not a grasshopper. Grasshoppers die when winter comes.

Later, when Senior discovers that Ellis and Neckbone have been filching supplies from the local junkyard, he shouts angrily at Ellis, "Don't you have any respect for a man's livelihood?" Ellis understands. Senior is a good father who teaches his son self-reliance and respect for the property of others. But it's hard on Ellis. His father isn't fun. Even his mother wants to leave the river and move into town.

Ellis is more drawn to the reckless Mud, a man who is driven by love, even though he knows that Mud's life is dangerous. Ellis is looking for something to believe in. He is looking for true love.

There is plenty of love in this story — the requited kind and the unrequited kind, the married kind and the unmarried kind, the fatherly kind and the brotherly kind. And the kind that gets you killed. But Ellis can't see it, because he's just a little too young for the nuances. His parents love each other, but they are talking about divorce. Neckbone doesn't remember his parents and lives with his uncle, who has a different girl every other night. Ellis likes a girl at school, and even fights for her honor, the way Mud would do. So he doesn't understand why she can't be faithful to him. He wants to believe in fidelity.

Ellis is looking for love, but he is also looking for himself — the self he will be when he grows up. In many respects, Mud is a foil for Ellis's father. Should he follow in Senior's footsteps, or should he break out on his own, which in reality would just be following in Mud's footsteps?

This is a film about choices, about looking forward and looking back. Mud is also looking for love. Like Neckbone, he grew up without parents, and Juniper seems to represent love and loyalty to him. Like Ellis, he is looking for himself, and he sees a lot of himself in these two boys.

All of this unfolds subtly and naturally — I don't want to give the impression that it's gooey or romantic. This is a man's kind of love story. There is plenty of suspense, shooting, and fighting as out-of-town bounty hunters come looking for Mud and figure out that the boys know where he is. All the story lines come together in a dramatic climax. And the film contains one of the most astounding race sequences I have ever seen, comparable in passion and tension to the end of the Coen Brothers' True Grit (2010). Simply an exquisite piece of filmmaking.

Matthew McConaughey is the quintessential good ol’ boy. He loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films. But the real star of this film is 16-year-old Tye Sheridan as 14-year-old Ellis. He is an actor to watch during the next decade. He has the sly charm and good looks of a young Tom Cruise, with the emotional depth and versatility of Leonardo DiCaprio, both of whom began acting in their early teens. Sheridan is completely at ease in this role that appears deceptively simple. He makes the film wondrous.

Editor's Note: Review of "Mud," directed by Jeff Nichols. Everest Entertainment, 2013, 130 minutes.

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Ed Sheehan

I enjoyed the storytelling this movie offered. I especially like how you write that, "Matthew McConaughey loves the South and treats it as if it were another character in his films." How right you are!

In this day of of fast-paced thrilling action movies, I do enjoy a slow-cooked stew, especially one that has so many complimentary flavors, and some surprises. This movie was suspenseful for me, mostly because I just never know what Matthew McConaughey is going to do. He has that easy smile that hides a deeper agenda. And even though I read your review, you have such good skill at unveiling the essence of a story without revealing important details that might spoil the viewer's feeling of discovery. So I was a bit edgy throughout most of this movie.

The actor who portrayed Ellis reminded me so strongly of River Phoenix in Stand By Me. A fierce loyalty and consuming curiosity. But even more than River, a tender heart which gets broken over and over. I felt so sad for him, most especially when he and Neckbone find Juniper in the bar. I knew he had something like a proxy crush on her, because Mud loved her, and he identified with Mud. He wanted her love to be true for Mud, and, as he faced the truth of what was in her heart, his heart was breaking. Everyone let him down. What a brutal way to grow up all at once.

This story angered me, like all stories where there is recklessness, and bad decision making, requiring heroics at the end to set things right. Mud's little-boy love couldn't overcome his inability to seal the deal. I know the old man framed their story as her always using him to get her out of trouble, which is why I felt angry when Juniper started to commit to Mud, and then backed out. I felt compassion for her though, because I think she was reacting to all the false promises Mud made to her over the years, just like he made promises to the boys, and she just didn't believe he would stay true to this commitment. That was why she was crying on the bed after Ellis left her room. Crying for the loss of what might have been more than the loss of what was. And wasn't that final long-distance encounter when their eyes met across the field heartbreaking? It was a relenting goodbye. They both needed to move to something they could believe in. I hoped they could work it out, but I knew they would part.

So that was my takeaway from this story. A man who loves a woman, but can't seem to keep her, due mostly to his recklessness. I knew he would have to do something heroic at the end to redeem himself to the people in his life, and to us, the viewers. I didn't expect so much heartache though, and I left the movie house hoping that Ellis would be able to overcome his reeling encounters with his heart to find love, and not be bitter.


I've only heard good reviews of this film so far. Maybe another Winter's Bone perhaps?


Another great film! mud is not as good as Winter's Bone (one of my all-time favorite libertarian flicks!) but it is certainly similar in that it is helmed by an outstanding young actor whose character displays a strong set of libertarian values. Mud is a solid film with staying power. Of course, it isn't in wide release, but worth watching for when it is released on Netflix.

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