Lionsgate // 2013 // 130 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // August 12th, 2013
A story about the unspoken rules and risks of love.
"We don't know who this guy is."
Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) is a 14-year-old boy living on the Arkansas delta. One day, Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are boating down the Mississippi river when they happen across a seemingly-deserted island. While exploring the area, the boys are surprised to make the discovery that a grizzled fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey, Killer Joe) is already living there. Mud may be on the run from the law, but he seems like a reasonably friendly guy, so Ellis agrees to bring the desperate man some food and help round up a few supplies. Soon, the boys find themselves meeting up with all sorts of different figures in Mud's life: his longtime girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, Walk the Line), his old friend Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard, Days of Heaven) and even a vicious bounty hunter (Paul Sparks, Boardwalk Empire) hellbent on bringing Mud's life to an end. Who is Mud, exactly? Can he be trusted? Is Ellis getting in over his head?
Over the course of three theatrical features, writer/director Jeff Nichols has proven himself to be one of the most talented and exciting filmmakers of his generation. His Shotgun Stories was a powerful, nuanced portrait of a family feud. Take Shelter was an even greater effort, offering extraordinarily bold narrative choices, surprising tenderness and a stunning central performance from Michael Shannon (that the actor didn't take home an Academy Award is a crime). Nichols' third film is the thriller Mud, which represents the closest thing he's made to a mainstream movie but also demonstrates that he's in absolutely no danger of losing his distinctive cinematic voice as he finds himself working on slightly larger movies for slightly larger audiences. In all three of his films, Nichols has demonstrated a gift for capturing a sense of place; he creates rural worlds that feel extraordinarily authentic and lived-in.
The little throwaway moments in Nichols' films have a tendency linger with me as strongly as the more climactic scenes. Consider the scene in which Ellis and his mother (Sarah Paulson, Serenity) are driving down the road, when suddenly they see some police cars in the distance. "Oh no!" Paulson gasps quietly, "Oh, I hope no one's hurt." It's not a particularly crucial moment (and it turns out that no one's hurt), but the way Paulson delivers that line is simply perfection. Another example, from the very same scene: the police officer who ends up speaking to Ellis and his mom seems almost alarmingly real. We see cops in movies and on television all the time, but I was struck by just how perfect this particular guy's performance was. The way he grimaces, the cadence of his speech, his slightly overbearing body language -- I don't know if he's a real cop or not (IMDb says his name is Ryan Jacks, and he doesn't have any other listed acting credits), but he certainly seems like one. Nichols knows these people: how they talk, how they behave and how they would react to the wild events the plot throws at them.
Speaking of which, Mud stands head and shoulders above the vast majority of thrillers simply by remaining focused on its characters all the way through. Yes, there's a big shoot-out in the third act, but it's superbly staged and it's never turns previously ordinary characters into preposterous action heroes. Plus, most of the third act isn't about violent conflict, but about several of these characters coming to terms with their feelings and facing some of life's most difficult emotional challenges head-on. It would have been easy for some of this stuff to feel saccharine, but Nichols handles all of it beautifully. The brief exchange between Mud and Juniper is a lovely piece of understatement, and the film's final scene (involving two major characters) is another moment in which everything we need to know is gently implied rather than stated explicitly. Mud is a very accessible film, but also one that trusts its audience enough not to be condescending.
Though Matthew McConaughey plays the title character and understandably receives top billing, Ellis is unquestionably the film's central figure. Young Tye Sheridan made a good impression as the younger brother in The Tree of Life, but this film really gives him an opportunity to demonstrate what a tremendous young actor he is. Observe the way he shifts his behavior depending on who he's dealing with: he's casual and loose when he's hanging out with Neckbone (the boys really do share a superb sense of chemistry), trying valiantly to mask his nervousness when he's flirting with a local high school girl (Bonnie Sturdivant), subdued yet respectful when talking to his father (Ray McKinnon, Deadwood) and remaining friendly-yet-wary when dealing with Mud. Sheridan never misses a beat and effectively carries the movie.
Of course, he's backed by a tremendous supporting cast. McConaughey really is exceptional as Mud, continuing the hot streak he's been on in recent times. What a remarkable run he's had; finally living up to all the potential he's hinted at over the past couple of decades. Few other actors could have captured the strange combination of feral charm and unstable danger the actor brings to the part. Reese Witherspoon doesn't make quite as strong an impression as Mud's troubled girlfriend, but it's nice to see her making a return to independent cinema after too many years in commercial fluff. McKinnon and Paulson are superb as Ellis' conflicted parents, and there are spot-on small supporting turns from Michael Shannon (atypically hilarious) and Joe Don Baker (never more menacing). The MVP of the supporting cast is arguably Sam Shepard, who brings the full force of his grizzled persona to the part and effectively reminds us of why he's an American treasure.
Mud (Blu-ray) has received a solid 1080p/2.35:1 transfer that does a fine job of highlighting Nichols' evocative locations. Detail is terrific throughout, really permitting the viewer to soak up the Arkansas atmosphere. Depth is impressive, and nighttime scenes benefit from exceptional shading. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is generally on the quiet side, but it's very detailed and ultimately proves fairly immersive. It delivers a sonic kick when it really needs to (such as during the aforementioned climactic shoot-out), but it really excels when capturing the subtle sounds of the Mississippi River. Supplements include a commentary with Nichols and four brief-but-engaging featurettes ("A Personal Tale," "The Arkansas Ensemble," "Southern Authenticity" and "The Snake Pit"). You also get a digital copy.
Mud is a gripping thriller, a moving coming-of-age tale, a gorgeous love letter to rural Arkansas and a genuinely inspirational fable. I can't recommend it highly enough, and I can't wait to see what Nichols does next.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 130 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Digital Copy