Unreal Movie Review: Mud


At the start of my tenure on this site, I championed the tragically underrepresented Take Shelter. The writer and director of that movie was a fella named Jeff Nichols. I haven’t seen his indie debut Shotgun Stories, but two hours of Take Shelter was more than enough to pique my interest in this filmmaker.

And now he’s returned with Mud. Headlined by man-of-the-moment Matthew McConaughey, Mud weaves a hypnotic, richly textured Southern narrative about the perils of trust. It’s got just about everything you’d need to make it a good movie.

Like what? For starters, it’s a coming-of-age story that doesn’t feel like a typical coming-of-age-story, but jump past the jump and we’ll get into what really makes Mud such a good movie.

If you guys took my advice and watched Take Shelter, then you’ll have some idea of what’s in store with Mud. Better still, Mud’s a strong follow-up effort; a movie that supercedes Take Shelter in scope and complexity while further establishing the set of expectations that will accompany the phrase “Written and Directed by Jeff Nichols.”

Like, for instance, the command of setting. Mud takes place in and around small-town America, and the ways in which the setting is alike and different from that of Take Shelter, also set in small-town America, are really kind of incredible.


It’s all in the details. Nichols neither belittles nor romanticizes the lives of lower-class Americans. He simply presents them as anybody else: as people. This sounds kind of patronizing, but it’s impressive in a filmic environment that so often succumbs to portraying this rung of America as either the last bastion of real wisdom or a bunch of backwards hicks.

Though the fine details of the South and life below the poverty line may be distinctive, the questions and trials these people face are universal. That, simply put, is good storytelling.

Also impressive? it’s fairly easy to spot the differences between the two towns in these movies. Though they’re technically the same “kind” of place, there are a number of stark differences onscreen that separate Take Shelter’s Ohio from Mud’s Arkansas. But Mud never rubs your face in those details; the differences simply ARE the movie.


When you consider how often small towns are homogenized (or even demonized) in contemporary cinema, this alone would be enough to justify checking these films out. Like Craig Brewer (Black Snake Moan) or Joe Cornish (Attack the Block), Jeff Nichols has proven himself to be a filmmaker with his ear to the ground.

So, if the setting’s so rich, how do the performers stack up? Well, Nichols has captured great acting before with Take Shelter’s Michael Shannon, who delivered a performance so strong that Academy voters unanimously — sorry, what?


Sorry folks, I’m being told Michael Shannon actually wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. What the hell.

Anyway, Mud’s performances are exceptional across the board. Matthew McConaughey, playing the title character, might be giving a career best in this one. Allegedly, the movie was written for him, and it shows. Every single one of his strengths is on display. He’s charismatic, wounded, desperate, and stubborn in turn, and 100% believable as a member of this world.


If McConaughey is 100% believable, then the two boys who serve as the movie’s true center are somewhere around 110%. Those two would be Tye Sheridan as Ellis (previously seen in Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone (this is his debut).

I’m gonna be honest: It’s startling to see how authentic these kids are. Not only are they completely believable as fourteen-year-olds, they’re completely believable as fourteen-year-olds from this specific town. Their friendship and the difference in their home lives is written in their clothes, their conversation, and their faces.

And the boys don’t stop impressing there. On top of appearing to spring straight from the town the movie’s set in, Sheridan and Lofland showcase a full range of emotions. Fear, anger, confusion, rage, wonder, and joy are all within easy reach; they don’t make a false move at any point in the movie.


The rest of the cast is peppered with strong performances, most notably Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson as Ellis’s parents, and Sam Shepard as a mysterious man who lives across the river. Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon show up and do their thing, too, for those of you keeping score at home.

Onscreen, Mud shimmers with that special brand of homespun mysticism that only the American South can provide. It’s never overwrought — this isn’t Beasts of the Southern Wild — but there’s a certain magical quality to the trips downriver, the writhing cottonmouths, and the folksy legends tossed off by Mud himself.

The movie plays a little slow (though Mud’s complex narrative means that the film never truly stops moving), but it doesn’t even matter. Nichols is a filmmaker who can draw suspense and resonance out of the smallest details. In a way, he’s reminiscent of Shyamalan in his prime.


Like Shyamalan, Nichols seems to have a clear understanding of the elements that make up his movies. Where Take Shelter had wind, rain, thunder, and construction, Mud is full of snakes, boats in trees, long trips, and hard work. While some have called Nichols’s use of these motifs heavyhanded, I think the content fits his movies’ subtly heightened tone.

Notice how far I’ve gotten without really going into the plot? Some of that is due to the way the movie works as a tone poem; a snapshot of life in the Deep South. But a much greater part of it has to do with the way that the plot unfolds.

Mud, like the character the movie’s named after, is constantly undermining audience expectations. Though the setup and payoff elements of the script are clear as a bell, it neatly sidesteps a number of cliche potholes it could have fallen into. By the time the movie’s climax arrives, I can truly say I didn’t know how things were going to shake out.

Maybe that’s just because I’m dumb, but I’d maintain that Nichols and his team simply know what they’re doing. Unfortunately, or rather, fortunately, this a plot best left undescribed. You’ll just have to trust me when I say there’s a lot of good story here.


By all means, get out to the theater and check out Mud. If you haven’t, rent Take Shelter as well. Jeff Nichols looks to be the real deal, and this movie cements his place on the “must watch newcomers” list.

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