The excellence of writer/director Jeff Nichols’ Mud lies in its authenticity, confidence and reserve. As I watched this coming-of-age story about two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Loffland), both of poorer Arkansas stock, and their involvement with a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey), I couldn’t shake what the film wasn’t – maudlin, simplistic or heavy-handed (i.e., like the template for so many “coming-of-age” stories about young boys, Stand by Me). While those two films have the Huck Finn story in their DNA, that’s where the comparison ends. Stand by Me needed a narrator to tell you what was of import and what was not in the adventures of their young male characters, and by the end of it, you felt thoroughly manipulated. Mud, however, requires no such crutch. The symbol of what is a man and father, what the divorce of his parents means to a boy, what young love is, and the heart of friendship, is depicted in a lifelike, piercing way. There is a wonderful scene where Loffland’s uncle, played by Michael Shannon, tries to impart some wisdom to Ellis, explaining in a deft but allegorical manner how Ellis needed to stay out of trouble and the nature of his responsibility to Neckbone, who is both a rock and a natural born follower. When Neckbone asks Ellis what they were talking about, Ellis shrugs and replies, “I don’t know.”
The performances are almost completely spot on, and Sheridan and Loffland should be shoo-ins for best actor and best supporting actor, but I’m certain they will be overlooked. That’s a shame, because they are at the ages where pure naturalism (for example, Quvenzhane Wallis in last year’s Beasts of the Southern Wild) cannot carry the day. These boys are making intuitive choices. Their interplay alone is mature and steady, and Sheridan’s scenes with a would-be girlfriend are heart wrenching. They will evoke your best friend from childhood, and you won’t need Richard Dreyfus intoning, “he was my best friend from childhood.”
McConaughey, who has bouts of phoning in roles with a quick smirk and a lazy drawl, delivers a much deeper performance here as the outlaw, desperate not only to escape the law but to reconnect with his true love (Reese Witherspoon). Nearly every other supporting character – from the rigid, recluse Sam Shepard to Ellis’s parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulsen), to Shannon (whose three scenes damn near steal the movie) – contributes in an effective, understated manner. If there is a weakness, it is Witherspoon, and she was not bad, she was just a little outclassed.
Nichols (Take Shelter) shoots the Mississippi River as a dream, and when the boys are on or traveling to and from the island where McConaughey is holed up, the feel is very Terence Malick. But when the boys are back home or amongst the townies, the look is bleached and tacky, further emphasizing the juice they get from their adventure.
Another kudo – when Hollywood deals with the non-urban, at its worst, you get a grotesque caricature, and at best, you merely get a sort of condescending ennobling, the hick version of “the magical negro” (usually wrapped up in a “you’re better than this place, Willie!”). There is none of that here. Instead, Nichols has written rounded, grounded, real characters.
It is perhaps unfair to use this picture as a club against Stand by Me. To the positive, it ranks up there with the equally excellent Sling Blade and One False Move and is thus far the best film of 2013.