In 2008, when Matthew McConaughey reunited with his How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days co-star Kate Hudson for Fool’s Gold, would anyone have ever thought five years later he’d be starring opposite Reese Witherspoon in a film that would have people chanting, for the second year in a row, “Give that man an Oscar nomination!”? Yet, that’s where we stand as the opinion of McConaughey is no longer that of the shirtless rom-com lead, but instead as a bonafide actor whose schtick is now as dramatically compelling as it was once comically cliche.
McConaughey, however, is not the only star that shines in writer/director Jeff Nichols‘ Mud. In fact, I’d say a lot of the time he’s overshadowed by his younger co-star Tye Sheridan in only his second film since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.
Set in the damp reaches of Arkansas, the film follows two adventurous young boys, Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who happen across a man by the name of Mud (McConnaughey) hiding out on a small island in the Mississippi. Intrigued by the stranger that talks of killing a man for the one he loves (Reese Witherspoon) and his plan to be reunited with her, Ellis and Neckbone decide to help him out with food and spare parts to get an abandoned boat running for Mud and his girlfriend to escape the authorities on his trail.
Struggling with parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) that fight at home and an unguided journey through adolescence, Ellis begins looking up to Mud as something of a father figure, but come the end of this story perhaps Mud will have learned just as much as, if not more. The two characters are virtually one and the same, meeting at a crossroads in life where things can only get worse before they get any better.
Nichols infuses the film with a sense of childlike wonder. A boat stuck in a tree is just as cool to a pair of 14 year-olds as it is to the adult in their midst. “A hell of a thing,” Mud says over and over as he admires the boat above and tells the boys about the two things that serve as his protection in life — his gun and his shirt — and you begin to wonder just how much of his own bullshit Mud begins to believe.
The myth Mud creates comes to surface as trouble befalls Ellis and Mud quickly rushes to his aid, but not before grabbing his shirt off a hanging branch and throwing it on as he runs to the rescue. Nichols makes a point to capture this moment in the story as if Mud believes this shirt to be some sort of cape worn by a superhero, but I was never quite sure if this was a statement being made by the director or the revelation of an insecurity in the character. Of course, the obvious answer would be to say the guy simply didn’t want to ride into town without a shirt on, but the emphasis Nichols places on the moment would suggest otherwise.
There are many ways to read the moment I just described, another would be to say when the time comes a true man does what need be done in a responsible manner. You stop selfishly playing in the sun and taking advantage of others, put your shirt on and take action. The film plays heavy on this idea of responsibility, being a man and being a father. Another father figure in the film is played by the great Sam Shepard whose love for what amounts to an adopted son in Mud forces him to protect the one he loves no matter the circumstances and another still in Joe Don Baker, but I’m not about to give away the whole story.
Mud runs the gamut of responsibility from the examples I’ve already mentioned to that of Galen, Neckbone’s uncle (played by Michael Shannon), who’s both inattentive and yet has found a balance raising Neckbone. Galen is hardly a father to Neckbone as much as he’s a trusted and trusting caregiver. Their relationship is far from ideal when looked at from a parenting standpoint, which only adds to the collage Nichols paints on screen.
Mud does run into length issues as it never felt it deserved to be 130 minutes long. Perhaps that’s because I never felt Witherspoon’s character found much of a place in the film and the time spent focused on Ellis’ bickering parents came about once too often. That said, my troubles with the length in the narrative came midway through rather than near the end. Nichols finds a satisfying way of wrapping this story up of a man named Mud that becomes every bit a man as he is a myth and a legend to the two boys that came to know, help and learn from his situation.
14 years old is an impressionable age, but in Mud it shows that some parts of us have a hard time growing up and its just as important to embrace our childhood as it is to let it go and learn to grow up to become a man. Responsibility is a hell of a thing, but it’s important not only to those around us, but to ourselves. Forced to grow up too soon, Ellis was looking for someone to love and believe in. He got every bit he was looking for and Mud got more than he bargained for.