Director: Jeff Nichols (‘Take Shelter’)
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Tye Sheridan (‘The Tree of Life’) and Jacob Lofland
Creating an emotionally and visually captivating drama with teenage protagonists, who learn about sacrifice, love and forgiveness, after a chance encounter in their mostly uneventful lives, can be a challenge. Making that type of drama on a independent, limited budget and a relatively short shooting schedule can make it even more challenging. But writer-director Jeff Nichols, who has risen to fame in recent years after making the acclaimed independent dramas ‘Take Shelter’ and ‘Shotgun Stories,’ assembled a diverse cast who gave authentic performances in the new film ‘Mud.’ Aided by simplistic but authentic sets and nearly a decade’s worth of research, the filmmaker created a captivating coming-of-age story that explores the lengths people will go to in order to find true love.
‘Mud’ follows 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who lives on a makeshift houseboat in Arkansas with his parents, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon). Along with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who lives with his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon), the two boys travel to an island on the Mississippi River. There Neckbone discovers an unusual sight-a boat suspended in the trees. The two teens soon discover that someone is living in the boat-the gritty, superstitious title character (Matthew McConaughey).
Despite Neckbone’s initial reluctance, Ellis agrees to help Mud by bringing him food, in exchange for the boat. While developing a friendship with the mysterious newcomer, the teens discover that Mud killed a man in Texas, and police and bounty hunters are looking for him. But Mud is more concerned about reuniting with his longtime love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), than any kind of legal trouble he faces.
Carver (Paul Sparks), a Texas bounty hunter, is keeping surveillance on Juniper while he searches for Mud, on orders from the cold-blooded King (Joe Don Baker). While the boys risk everything to reunite Mud and Juniper, Ellis’s own ideas about love are challenged when he witnesses a strain his parents’ relationship. While striving to help keep his parents together and reunite his new friend with his lost love, Ellis struggles to find love that he can believe in.
Nichols, who wrote the title character with McConaughey in mind, smartly cast the actor in the role. Naturally relating to Mud’s lyrical speech and physicality, McConaughey emphasized his character’s commitment to his love for Juniper. Everything he does throughout the drama, from living on the boat on the deserted island to befriending Ellis and Neckbone and relying on them for supplies, is in the vain of reconnecting with his long-lost love. The actor also convincingly emphasizes Mud’s youthful, romantic beliefs. His reluctance to fully mature and look at his relationship with Juniper practically allows his two new young friends to continue believing in love, but also subtly doubt his motivations and stories.
The writer-director also created a relatable and emotionally driven young protagonist in Ellis, who is also at times unreliable. Sheridan showcases how Ellis is determined to find at least one relationship that supports his belief that love can be genuine enough to overcome any obstacle. As a result, he forgoes his responsibilities to put his trust in Mud, who he naively believes will continuously do anything to protect those he cares about the most.
On his quest to prove to himself that love really is intense enough to overcome any obstacle, Ellis is willing to put himself in danger with Carver and the bounty hunters. With Ellis instantly believing Mud is someone he can trust, as he admires his commitment to Juniper, he’ll do anything to help them reunite. Ellis’ unquestionable faith in Mud’s intentions and motivations in getting Juniper back helped a genuine, believable bond between the two characters.
McConaughey’s authentic and captivating performance as the title character, and his naturalistic bond with his younger co-stars, particularly Sheridan, was creatively highlighted by the effortless art decorator Richard Wright and costume designer Kari Perkins. Using small, but often detailed visual cues, naturally emphasized the character’s need for the belief in true love is shown through Ellis’s perspective. With Nichols forgoing excessive dialogue, the subtle set and costume designs powerfully emphasize the characters’ motivations, and allow their actions to truly showcase how they’ve come to emotionally survive life in their small fishing town.
McConaughey, for example, wore the same white button-down shirt throughout the entire film, emphasizing Mud’s superstition about wearing a piece of clothing that has been known to bring him luck. While the shirt is completely batter, after Perkins sanded, scratched and tore it, Mud’s continued reluctance to part with it proved to Ellis that his new friend doesn’t give up on things he loves, even if they become battered and worn down in the process.
While ‘Mud’ features simplistic dialogue, set decoration and costume designs throughout the majority of its storyline, the natural character and plot development and visuals provide Nichols’ story about the struggle to find true love with a genuine authenticity. While Ellis hasn’t experienced any true, life-altering events until he unexpectedly meets Mud and agrees to help reunite him with Juniper, his budding relationship with the outlaw gave him a true perspective of overcoming any obstacle he faces. McConaughey and Sheridan were well-cast in their respective roles, and both naturally built on their characters’ shared belief that true love can help them overcome any obstacle.
Written by: Karen Benardello