By Joan Ellis
Start with an infectious sense of place. Mud unfolds in rural Arkansas around a river where people live in water-rooted shacks and scratch a living from selling oysters, fish, and reclaimed junk.
Subsistence life sets the tone for this unlikely country story. It’s the kind of tale that builds in your imagination under the nimble touch of writer/director, Jeff Nichols, a meandering southern story with punch. So settle in and let it absorb you.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his father and mother who are rolling through increasing resentments toward separation. His friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) who collects oysters under a reconstituted helmet that allows him to stay under water while he works.
Two preoccupied broken families leave the boys free to explore their river. They use an old outboard to journey into the wider water where they explore an island and discover a boat in a tree, brought there, they think, by a onetime flood. A loaf of fresh bread tells them they aren’t alone.
They meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive from bounty hunters, who plays fair and square with the boys except for a spun version of his emotional history. The boys become Mud’s assistants in renovating the boat with materials they scavenge from the local junkyard.
But director Nichols has much more on his mind than a simple story of friendship between two boys and their new friend. He will explore nothing less than the motivating drives in human relationships. Ellis internalizes Mud’s tale of his lifelong love of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and will do anything he can to reunite them “because you love each other.” It’s not quite that simple says Tom (Sam Shepard, majestically astride his houseboat), an old friend of Mud’s. Ellis chooses, at 14, a girlfriend of his own who he will protect in the way Mud says he protected Juniper. For Ellis, love and loyalty have become paramount in all friendships and he assumes the role of protector of his new friends. We, in the meantime, have become intrigued with every single one of them.
Will Ellis’s family reunite? Will Tom help Mud? Will Mud get caught? Can Ellis solve the problems of this thoroughly unstable group? Because we care so much about them, we want the movie to end before the seemingly inevitable bad is visited on them.
Soap opera, you ask? Not really, and that’s because Tye Sheridan creates Ellis in such a remarkable way that we would leap from our seats to protect him from threat ourselves. This young actor manages to take his character from child to adult in two hours, a remarkable feat for him, a rare experience for us.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mud with an unaccustomed restraint that allows his duet with Tye Sheridan to unfold in unspoiled harmony. Director Nichols has set a southern story in a metaphorical field of big questions and his whole cast got the point.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.