As reported by Rebecca Leffler of The Hollywood Reporter, director Jeff Nichols deeply admires Mark Twain, so much so that, during the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, he hyperbolically referred to Twain as “the greatest American writer to have lived.” You can see the author’s influence in Nichols’ newest film, Mud, which not only competed for the Palme d’Or a year ago but is also one of the most engrossing and resonant coming-of-age dramas of recent memory. It tells the story of two southern teenage boys and their unlikely alliance with a fugitive in hiding; what one of the boys doesn’t immediately realize is that, in the process of helping this mysterious man, he’s embarking on his own journey, one that will be more emotionally harrowing than physically. And yet, it will also be rewarding, more so than he ever could have imagined.
Nichols has repeatedly stated in interviews that the overarching theme of the film is love, and indeed it is. Taking place in a visually authentic rural Arkansas town on the banks of the Mississippi River, the central character is a boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who, at age fourteen, is too young to understand what love really is. His mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), is seriously considering divorcing his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon), who makes a living selling fish door-to-door. Although her exact reasons aren’t known, it’s nevertheless obvious that it’s a complex issue in which both sides have legitimate points to make. Ellis doesn’t initially see this; he only sees that his mother might move away, and that, if she goes through with it, the boathouse they live in can legally be seized by the government, leaving his father with nothing.
He’s also only able to see that the love that once bonded his parents has been broken. This is where the fugitive comes in; his name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he’s discovered by Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), hiding on an island in the middle of the Mississippi, specifically in a boat that has somehow ended up in the branches of a tree. A charismatic man with a penchant for storytelling, he tells the boys that he’s on the run for killing the man that mistreated a woman named Juniper, the love of Mud’s life. Apart from food, Mud needs supplies to get his boat out of the tree, into the river, and out of town. Arrangements must also be made to help Juniper escape with Mud. Neckbone doesn’t trust Mud and wants nothing to do with his escape. Ellis, on the other hand, believes so strongly in the love Mud feels for Juniper that he’s motivated to help him.
When we’re finally introduced to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), we immediately see that her rustic beauty has been somewhat tarnished and belies an inner sadness. She’s largely confined to a motel room, as she’s being watched closely by bounty hunters led by King (Joe Don Baker) and Carver (Paul Sparks), the father and the brother of the man Mud killed. It’s amazing, the lengths to which Ellis will go to intervene on Juniper’s behalf; when he sees that she’s being beaten by Carver, not only will he get in the middle of the fight, he will not run away after getting punched in the face. While undeniably reckless, especially for such a young man, we’re left a little in awe of Ellis – he’s standing up for love, something he desperately wants to believe in. But as is the case with his parents, the relationship between Mud and Juniper isn’t as straightforward as it appears to be. Both have sides to themselves they don’t initially reveal.
Intertwined is a subplot involving Ellis and his relationship with a high school girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis’ chivalry knows no bounds; despite being younger and smaller than the high school boys she hangs out with, he will without fail punch out any guy that gives her a hard time. He considers May Pearl his girlfriend. What he doesn’t yet understand is that, although May Pearl is older, she’s just as inexperienced at love as he is, and therefore runs hot and cold in regards to showing him any kind of innocent affection. Some time is reserved for Neckbone, as well. He’s being raised by his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), who digs for clams in a makeshift scuba helmet. Galen, who sleeps with too many women and plays too much electric guitar, is still mature enough to be there for Neckbone should he need someone to talk to.
The final act of Mud, which I will not spoil for you, runs like a particularly well-oiled machine, incorporating elements of suspense, drama, and just a touch of sentiment. Although the fable-like relationship between Ellis and the title character was engaging, for me, the most compelling aspect was the relationship between Ellis and his parents; Mary Lee and Senior may be falling out of love with each other, but their love for their son has never wavered. And although their love is fading, that doesn’t necessarily mean they can’t be civil to one another. Ellis must learn to process these facts of life, which are nothing like the romanticized ideals he has come to believe in. I should think that, if Mark Twain were alive today, he would be pleased with this film. Here is a mature, thought-provoking, thoroughly absorbing character study that, in its own gritty way, is also a great adventure.