It’s still dark when the two boys sneak away to investigate a piece of local lore. They’ve heard rumors of a boat stuck up in a tree on a nearby island. So they slip onto a skiff and brave the open water of the big river. And there it is – perched 30 feet up, perhaps left in a hurricane’s wake. There’s something else on the island too: a stranger who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and who makes the boys a deal. If they bring him food and parts for the boat, he’ll give them his gun.
This is all wonderful stuff, especially if – like me – you grew up reading the likes of The Hardy Boys and Huckleberry Finn, sought adventures in the woods with friends and have come to deeply appreciate the rural tragedies of writer-director Jeff Nichols. Mud follows Nichols’ Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, and like its predecessors the movie depicts grand drama as it plays out in forgotten American settings. Mud is another regional effort with universal implications.
It’s also a coming-of-age tale, centered on Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who played the youngest son in The Tree of Life). Living on a houseboat with his argumentative parents, Ellis is just beginning to negotiate the world of girls. But unlike his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who delights in the pile of Penthouse magazines found in the boat, Ellis seeks deeper connections. He wants to fall in love. Never mind that his main male role models are less than encouraging. Neckbone’s uncle (Nichols regular Michael Shannon, here in a bit part) lives a life of one-afternoon stands, while Ellis’ dad (Ray McKinnon), depressed over the state of his marriage, tells his boy that “you can’t trust love.” No matter. Ellis still believes in it, deeply.
Mud is a great yarn. But is it a great movie?
And so when Mud tells them that he’s hiding for romantic reasons, Ellis thinks he’s found a fellow believer. The story goes – and Mud is nothing if not a teller of tall tales, which makes McConaughey perfect for the role – that Mud is on the run after killing a man who had been beating up Mud’s lifelong love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). With the boys’ help, he plans to reunite with Juniper and escape to a life of romantic bliss.
This is, of course, a fairy tale, something Ellis comes to realize in painful ways. He discovers that love, in fact, can’t be trusted. Hearts change. Other people get in the way. We often get in the way of ourselves. It’s heartbreaking to watch Ellis’ naivete fall by the wayside (all the more so because Sheridan, with his fresh, freckled face, is such a raw, authentic presence).
Mud, then, is a great yarn. But is it a great movie? I’m afraid not – especially if measured against Nichols’ previous features. Something’s off, and the most concrete element I can point to is the unwieldy structure. Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter both had a laconic inevitability to their pacing, whereas Mud is never quite able to find the right gear. Although Nichols wrote the original screenplay, it almost feels as if the movie has been laboriously adapted from a Great American Novel – one by Twain, maybe, or Faulkner. At more than two hours, Mud has more narrative offshoots than it knows what to do with. While they’re all thematically of a piece – you understand why Nichols wanted to include them – they also slow down the narrative momentum.
There are other problems. Witherspoon doesn’t work, and I’m not sure if it’s because she can’t dim her star wattage the way McConaughey does or because Nichols doesn’t give her any real knockout moments (it’s probably a combination). And while there are at least two stabs at cheap drama in the final third, for the life of me I can’t understand why nothing is made of the moment when the boat comes down from the tree. Nichols could have made something magical of that, but it inexplicably occurs offscreen. Still, I liked Mud. What’s frustrating is feeling as if I could have loved it.