Mud is the story of a 14-year-old Arkansas youth named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), and we see the contents of his room before we see him. The walls are lined with the bric-a-brac of boyhood: bobbleheads, pennants, antique pistols, and blue ribbons. Waking in the early hours of morning, he slips out of his room and past the windows of his house, eager to begin a day of adventure and exploration with his best friend, Neckbone. As he moves along the periphery of his riverfront dwelling, he stops under one of the windows afraid his parents have heard him moving about. He hears one of them speak. “I want to have a conversation,” his mother quietly intones to his father. Ellis’ father does not immediately respond and Ellis does not hang around to hear if he ever answers back. Ellis’ concern is with slipping away undetected for another blissfully innocent, river-cruising, island-trekking Southern afternoon, not with the hushed tones of domestic unrest inside that small kitchen.
When Ellis finds his friend, Neckbone asks him if his father knows that he left. Ellis responds, “I’m not worried about my Dad killing us.” We have only heard three lines of dialogue thus far in the film, but Jeff Nichols has provided us with the most fundamental foreshadowing of what is to come. The seeds of divorce are beginning to sprout in Ellis’ home and, when Ellis finds out, it will not be his father he chooses to blame. Ellis is a romantic at heart but his principles have been shaded by his lack of experience and the subtle misogyny of the world around him. Nichols’ film is a sly, sweetly subversive fairy tale about one youth’s struggle to reconcile his tender notions of romantic love with the gradually dawning, bittersweet epiphany of what love truly is and is not. The catalyst for all of this is an effervescently caddish fugitive named Mud, who has taken refuge on the island the boys choose to explore on that fateful afternoon.
Ellis and Neckbone become aware of Mud’s presence shortly after discovering an old boat lodged in a tree. They are excited to claim it for themselves, but the presence of fresh groceries inside alerts them that someone has already claimed it. They soon discover Mud on the beach. As played by Matthew McConaughey, in the role of his career thus far, Mud is a laconically smooth, slightly slick man of Southern superstition. He wears crosses on the bottom of his shoes, made from nails, to ward off evil spirits. He regales the boys with downhome wisdom about how snakes will not cross a braided rope and how a bonfire can cure bad luck. He tells them he will part with his pistol but never his shirt, because a man’s shirt is his strongest form of protection. What makes Mud such a fascinating character in McConaughey’s repertoire is how he seems steeped in fairy tale and yet quietly suggests an awareness that it is all stuff and nonsense. He may not believe everything that comes out of his own mouth, but he values this less cynical way of looking at the world and, anyway, it just seems like the kind of fantastic hokum that adventurous, young boys want to hear.
Before too long, Ellis learns that Mud is on the run because he killed the man who beat Juniper, the woman he loves. Moreover, Mud is in town because he knows Juniper is there and he is desperate to reunite with her. Having just received the news of his parents’ impending separation, Ellis plunges himself into the fairytale of romance that Mud seems to represent and vows to help him get back together with his love and escape the hitmen who have been hired by the father of the man Mud killed. Ellis seems to believe the act of reuniting Mud with his paramour will put the lie to this new fallible, adult incarnation of love and replace it with the old one; the one that was as sweet and uncomplicated as a sun-dappled Arkansas summer.
In fairness to Ellis, there are more complicated issues in his life than just the divorce. Arkansas law states that, if his parents split up, the River Authority will be legally required to tear down their riverside home. To Ellis, the divorce is not just a rebuke to everything he feels is true about love. It is a death knell to the entire idyllic, water-logged Southern childhood he has come to treasure. Nichols wisely shows how, to a child, divorce can represent not only a seismic change but the destruction of an entire familiar way of life. Mud could have spoon-fed us easy lessons about divorce, but Nichols writes with a refreshing empathy for every character in his ensemble. Ellis tries to characterize his mother as a villain for wanting the divorce, but Nichols’ script sidesteps misogyny by showing us the earnest integrity of her motives and by letting Sarah Paulson’s quiet intelligence do the rest of the heavy lifting. We feel Ellis’ sense of confusion and moral outrage. Divorce changes things. But, as an adult, I also understand that divorce saves lives, defuses unhealthy emotional turbulence, and prevents years of psychic scarring. Mud is a wise and humane film because it walks alongside its deeply likable protagonist without passively endorsing his worldview. Ellis may not initially see the reasons his parents must separate, but Jeff Nichols certainly does. He does not judge Ellis, but instead compassionately observes him, and waits with baited, hopeful breath for him to learn the truth about adult love on his own.
But, because we are with Mud and Ellis for so much of the film, none of this would work without the virtually flawless acting from both Matthew McConaughey and the very gifted Tye Sheridan. For all the praise McConaughey has received this year for his very good work in Dallas Buyer’s Club, this is the great role he was born to play. McConaughey allows us to see both the endearingly reckless bullshit artist behind Mud’s laconic facade and the almost saintly avatar of unsullied romance that Ellis wants him to be. It is an acting challenge that requires nimble humor, a touch of reluctant dishonesty, and a deep understanding of how his character must both represent and later subvert Ellis’ fairytale. Mud is the surest sign yet that McConaughey’s recent career momentum is no fluke, proof that he can take hints of danger and feral charm and mix them in the right doses to meet the vision of his director.
Perhaps even more thrilling is young Tye Sheridan, who played nicely in Terence Malick’s Tree of Life, but was also given the least to do as the youngest of Brad Pitt’s three sons. He is a revelation here, called upon to oscilatte subtly between the trusting, vulnerable child Ellis has been and the humble, good-hearted young man he is becoming. The slow decay of childhood’s mystique overtakes Ellis with each new interaction he has with the adult world and Sheridan underplays it beautifully. This is a child performance that does not need to be concealed or fixed through editing because every note of it is played with honesty and decency. Sheridan is simply a pleasure to watch perform. Particularly exquisite is a climactic scene where Ellis learns that Mud no longer truly wants to save his relationship with Juniper
Mud is a perceptively acted, mythically Southern coming-of-age story about a young man who views the women around him as perplexing, mercurial, and often vindictive figures. It is a young man’s fairy tale bathed in the beautiful light of muggy summer days and soothing twilight hush of gatherings in diner parking lots. It is a fairy tale about the sudden, startling moment in a child’s life when fairytale ceases to be an effective way of looking at the world. It is about the putting away of childish things and learning to see that the frailty of love neither diminishes its value nor refutes its existence. Sometimes love works and you and your dear one sail off into the sunset together. And other times, you part ways and continue the remainder of your journey alone. Whichever way the story turns out, the sunset is yours to keep.