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Writer-director Jeff Nichols has made a name for himself crafting complex character-driven dramas like Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter that feature smoldering performances from Michael Shannon. For his latest venture Mud, Nichols took on some new challenges, moving his reliable leading man to a supporting role, and focusing his drama on an optimistic and earnest young boy. The results are intriguing, but at times perplexing.
This original coming-of-age tale follows adolescent pals Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a pair of boys who live in a community tied to a dying way of life. Ellis' family lives on a river in a decrepit houseboat while his father (Deadwood's Ray McKinnon) works as a fisherman. Their home life isn't exactly happy, as the wishes of his mother (Sarah Paulson) are again and again neglected, urging her to a fateful decision to threaten divorce. Witnessing the dissolution of a love he thought was meant to last, the young boy and his broken heart find solace in a flirty older girl, and the mystery of the miscreant named Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Seeking the perfect summer retreat, Ellis and Neckbone boat to an abandoned island where a major storm had left a boat high in a tree. They plan to make it their personal fort, until they realize it has been claimed by Mud, a scruffy man with bizarre talismans and wild stories. Mesmerized by Mud's claims that he is hiding out, waiting for his lady love to reunite with him, Ellis agrees to help by bringing supplies and delivering missives to the battered but beautiful Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). However, the naïve romantic soon discovers that Mud is not all that he claims to be, and the truth of his love story is much more complex than Ellis could imagine.
Centering on a boy's wish that love prove eternal, Mud is a surprisingly tender film from Nichols. As its plucky, openhearted hero mingling with a potentially dangerous, possibly misunderstood outsider, it feels a bit like Nichols' take on early Amblin-era Spielberg. However, Ellis' sense of wonder at Mud and his tall tales is undercut by a tone of suspicion that plays out in the film's score. It's dark and brooding, warning us of the danger of Ellis's adventure long before he recognizes it. It suggests that despite the young protagonist being in nearly every scene, it is not his emotions that drive the film, but rather a more cynical perspective. It's a jarring contrast that becomes an obstacle to relating fully to Ellis' hopefulness and ardent trust of Mud. Also, at 130 minutes it feels ambling at times, as scenes unfold without Ellis present, padding subplots but adding little necessary to the narrative.
Still, the performances are sensational. Sheridan, who has previously appeared in Tree of Life, ably handles the rough and tumble boy with a big bleeding heart, while newcomer Lofland offers an effortless and grounded performance as the young tough with the defiant glare. McKinnon and Paulson have little screen time, but breathe stirring life into the roles of Ellis' warring parents, and Michael Shannon is not only engaging but also actually sort of adorable in the unexpected role of Neckbone's well-meaning but bumbling uncle. Sam Shepard pops up in the perfectly cast role of a loner rumored to have been an ex-assassin. Witherspoon is a bit weak, bringing little more to Juniper than big teary eyes, but McConaughey is absolutely riveting as Mud.
A smart costuming decision gave him a mangled set of fake teeth that steals away some of McConaughey's physical appeal and natural charm. This pairs well with his temperamental portrayal that challenges the audience on whether or not this strange man is good at his core or a liar through and through. Between this, Magic Mike, and the buzz over the upcoming Dallas Buyers Club, McConaughey is entering a fascinating new phase in his career where he is no longer being demanded to flaunt his looks and charm. He's getting less likable characters who are crass, ugly, gnarled, and damaged, and so far he's doing wonders with them.
Ultimately, I'm torn on Mud. Its story was engaging, and the internal struggle of Ellis was cleverly paired with an external struggle to save a man who he feels champions his romantic ideals. However the execution carries a heavy, cynical tone that subverts Ellis's perspective and makes the film's finale seem dubious. I'm not typically a movie watcher who pays much attention to the score, but this one was so ominous that I couldn't shake the sense that Ellis isn't the only one being conned. It took me weeks to unpack what I made of the end of Take Shelter. And being only days away from having seen Mud, I still don't know where I stand on it's curious conclusion.