In “Mud”, director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us the magnificent, and I suspect, under-viewed “Take Shelter”) has created an engaging, nuanced coming of age story set in the other-worldly environs of the Mississippi.
Told mainly through the eyes of the principal character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan), it’s the story of two boys who discover a boat wedged in the top of a tree on a deserted island somewhere in the middle of the fast flowing river. They claim the boat as theirs, only to discover that there’s someone living in it. That someone turns out to be a disheveled, chipped-toothed Matthew McConaughey (the eponymous Mud) in one of his finest roles since “Lone Star”. He spins the boys a story about waiting for his lover, a story that Ellis, with his fine sense of chivalry and innocent idealization of true love, swallows hook line and sinker. What Mud hasn’t told them is that he’s really on the run, having killed a man in a jealous rage. True love and true jealously are twins that we see unfold.
The main storyline concerns the actions of the boys as they try to rescue Mud – from the island, the law and, eventually, from his less than faithful lover (a sexy, white trash Reese Witherspoon).
The influences of Mark Twain’s Mississippi books are evident – the boys, Ellis and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) are Huck and Tom; Mud is their version of the fleeing Nigger Jim. Like “Huckleberry Finn”, the movie’s bi-focal vision looks at the small domestic drama of one boy’s rite of passage into the flowering of (a priapic) maturity, as he learns to see things as they are, and not the romanticized fantasy of how they should be… about finding the kernel of truth hidden within its husks of lies.
It is also, like the book, about the nature of flight and freedom. At its most obvious, Mud is fleeing the law and a posse of ruthless vigilante bounty hunters, lead by the wonderful, jowly Joe Don Baker as the God fearing father of Mud’s victim, bent on revenge. He (Mud) also has to free himself from his own fantasized version of Juniper (Reese’s character) whose on and off love is destroying him. She herself, trapped, doomed, trying to escape to a better life has a tattoo of a bird in flight, the ultimate symbol of freedom. Ellis’ mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) has to escape a failed marriage and free herself from the isolation of the river (one of the characters early in the film describes the river as the place where you either found a living, like Neckbone’s uncle -the compelling Michael Shannon – or isolation). Mud’s father (or father-figure), Tom (Sam Shepard) has himself escaped a shady past to the freedom offered by the isolation and invisibility of the river.
There are two recurrent images and symbols – of snakes and of birds in flight. Mud has a large curling snake (tattoo) wrapped around his torso; he’s been bitten in the past by one and nearly dies (as happens to Ellis); at various points, people are disparagingly cursed as “nasty snakes”. The snake seems to be the hard and harsh reality that you need to be aware of and avoid. It’s the danger lurking at your feet. The graceful flocks of birds that arc across the sky from time to time are the obvious image of the unfettered life, the kind of life the boys seem to have as they whizz about in their small boat and motorbike; the kind of life that’ll end soon enough as maturity and jobs hem them in.
Jeff Nichols paces the movie nicely, slowly building the narrative and drawing us in to Mud’s every changing stories about himself, his lover and his father, even as the darker forces of retribution arm themselves and quicken the story to its final explosive shoot-out.