“Mud” Movie Review

     I commonly say “They don’t make them like that anymore.”  My saying that is really just a emotional reaction to the many films made today that seem to ignore the elements that turned the films of yesteryear into classics.  Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ new film “Mud” doesn’t suffer from those shortcomings, as it immerses the viewer in it’s setting and spends countless scenes developing it’s characters.  I’m sure Nichols has spent plenty of time studying filmmakers such as Spielberg, Tarantino, and to a certain extent, Malik as the work of all three seem to be clear influences in story, character, and surroundings.  This is not to say “Mud” suffers from any kind of unoriginal thinking.  Nichols tells a rich, complex story and has created the type of characters we don’t often meet at the movies.

     Matthew McConaughey delivers a convincing performance as the lead character, Mud, a wanted fugitive who is hiding on an island on the Mississippi River.  One afternoon, two 14 year old boys who live near by, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), arrive on the island and discover a houseboat that somehow has washed away from the river and half way up a large tree.  The boys decide this will be their new tree house of sorts, but soon realize the interior of the boat is being lived in.  When they get back to their boat anchored on the beach, they meet Mud for the first time.

     At first, Mud simply asks the boys to help him by bringing food and supplies in exchange for the rights to the boat in the tree at a later date.  He tells them he is there waiting for someone, but doesn’t divulge details.  Ellis and Neckbone buy into what Mud is selling and agree. This, of course, is only the beginning of what is a very complex story.  At home, Ellis and his parents live on a river boat in Arkansas.  In what is a foreign life for those who are more fortunate, Ellis and his father, Ellis Senior (Ray McKinnon) make a living by selling the fish they catch to area businesses.  Senior and his wife, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), are in the midst of separating and the the family stands to lose the river boat as a result.  This brings together a powerful subplot in the film that makes Ellis question love, as his father denounces the practice, but Mud seems to let love drive him in everything he does.  This, in turn, begins to command Ellis’ decision making in a variety of situations, including his quest to find his own relationship.

     Neckbone is being raised by his Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who makes his living diving for oysters.  Everyone in this story is no stranger to hard work and it seems everyone is just getting by.  When Ellis’ mom announces her intent to leave his father, Senior rants about how his livelihood is being taken from him, a thought you can relate to when you realize how difficult each of these character’s lives must be and how hard they have worked to get what little they have.  Ellis and Neckbone thrive on exploration and entertaining themselves without the need for anything modern.  They are content because they don’t know of anything else.

     The boys begin bringing Mud food and he slowly begins to open up with them, especially Ellis, who takes a more keen interest since his family is about to break up.  Mud tells the boys he is waiting for the one woman he loves, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who he believes is in town to see him.  Mud makes a deal with the boys to begin bringing him parts that will allow him to move the boat from the tree to the water and use it to find Juniper.  He suggests they contact Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), Ellis neighbor across the river for help.  Tom accompanies the boys to the island and reveals to them why Mud is there.  After an on again, off again relationship with Juniper, Mud finds her with another man whom he kills.  The truth is Mud is hiding from bounty hunters hired by the man’s father and Tom advises the boys to stay away as Mud is not who he seems.

     Ever present in Nichols’ film are the drab lived in spaces common in many Tarantino films.  The setting, highlighted with a number of wide shots of the surroundings, vegetation, water, and indigenous creatures remind of the very fabric a Malik film is weaved from.  The central characters being children with divorcing parents, harks back to early 80’s Spielberg films where the kids operate mainly on their own and the adults serve mostly as background characters.  You could even sprinkle in a little Cohen brothers influence with the third act and it’s violent outcomes seem to resemble some of the same high notes of their crime thrillers.  The performances by Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are flawless and both awards worthy.  Sheridan’s character especially shows a wide array of emotions throughout as he navigates his family’s problems and his girlfriend problems, while assisting Mud with his.  While Shannon and Witherspoon play characters who perform more in the background of the story, they are still developed through several important scenes that blend seamlessly into the overall narrative.

     “Mud” should not be ignored come awards season at the end of the year.  The writing and direction in the film are some of the best I’ve seen this year and every performance carries the emotional weight and acting savvy necessary to be considered for some of the year’s top prizes.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see “Mud” take the exact route that both “Winter’s Bone” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”, both festival darlings as well, took directly to a Best Picture nomination.  GRADE: A