Director: Jeff Nichols
Runtime: 130 minutes
*This review is an updated version of my original review from May 2012 during the Cannes Film Festival.
Jeff Nichols' Southern-fried coming-of-age tale Mud first premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Shockingly, it wasn't immediately snatched up for American distribution, despite being both accessible and generally well-received. It's been nearly a year, but those eagerly following Nichols' career (which should be any movie enthusiast) can finally experience the writer/director's third film. Though Mud feels decidedly broader and more commercial than the incredible Take Shelter (2011), it's a touching and effective story that should open the talented director up to a wider art house audience. It could even open Nichols up to the mainstream in future endeavors (much like Rian Johnson). Regardless of where Nichols' career goes, I hope that Mud becomes a gateway film for those not acquainted with his films, rather than an indicator of where his career is headed.
Set in Mississippi, two young friends, Ellis (Tye Sheridan of The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) living in their favorite secret hangout. The hangout in question is a small boat that has, somehow, wound up lodged in a tree, and the image brings to mind the whimsy of films like Tim Burton's Big Fish, as well as classic stories like "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." This is a film predominantly focused on one boy's experiences with love and betrayal, and all of the right ingredients are there on paper.
What Mud is lacking, however, is a sense of surprise. Nichols feels comfortable with the material, but it doesn't feel like he's really pushing himself. It's good to know he can write this sort of indie crowd pleaser, but also disappointing in terms of how unremarkable (and occasionally repetitive) the plotting is. At 130 minutes, the film certainly isn't dull, but there are times when the nature of the story keeps it from being as taut or compelling as it could be.
This is largely present in the middle of the story. Where Take Shelter's middle occasionally bordered on meandering, Nichols managed to hold it all together. With Mud, however, he seems to have become a little too relaxed with the plotting, and the pacing of the midsection suffers as a result. Some moments feel like padding, even as they seem relevant (and even necessary). Part of the blame probably has to do with the split between scenes focusing on Ellis' internal and external journeys. The attempt to split the two is admirable, yet it causes the film to feel unfocused, rather than well-rounded. Then there's the climax, which, though handled well on its own, begins so abruptly that it feels like a deus ex machina of sorts.
That doesn't mean that there isn't a lot to like about Mud. From the opening shots, including some lovely images of the Mississippi River, the nostalgic (but never sappy) tone comes through beautifully, thanks to Adam Stone's richly textured cinematography and David Wingo's lush, ambient score. And, just like in Take Shelter, Nichols has managed to bring out strong work from his main actors. McConaughey turns in his best performance in quite some time, devoid of his usual acting tics. He brings the sort of charming (but not smug) quality to Mud that makes you understand why people would be drawn to him, even if he might have ulterior motives. The timing of Mud's release couldn't be any more perfect for the actor, as it reenergizes the actor's stellar comeback that began last year. Reese Witherspoon is solid as well in a small role as the love interest Mud is hoping to reconnect with. Even smaller players like Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, as Ellis' parents, deliver effective work, even though some of their material is among the weakest (one big fight scene turns uncomfortably on the nose).
The standout, however, is young Mr. Sheridan, who carries the film with his presence. He's an inherently watchable, likable screen presence, and Nichols extracts a performance from him that doesn't feel overly mannered or coached. When he finally gets his big moment, an outburst at Mud, he knocks it out of the park, and cements himself as a tiny powerhouse. He captures Ellis' journey through romantic and idealistic disappointment with such naturalism, that I think it must be one of the best child performances to grace the screen in some time. For all its imperfections that keep it from greatness, Sheridan is excellent and, above all else, the best reason to stick with Mud all the way through its predictable, yet still touching finale.