Mud leads with its themes. Young Ellis’ (Tye Sheridan) fascination with the titular Mud (Matthew McConaughey) embodies his aspirations for his manhood, albeit one with an undercurrent of violent tendencies. This gives the film a fascinating entry-point into exploring issues of masculinity, violence and a man’s role in a romantic relationship. But it also means that many scenes play to further these themes. As a result, the storytelling isn’t always as strong as it should be.
Once again, writer/director Jeff Nichols effortlessly captures the American South with a soft, mystic air amid base quests of violence and vengeance. Ellis and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) drive a boat out to a nearby island where they’ve heard stories of a boat stuck among the treetops. They find the boat, just like the story says, but they also find signs that a man (Mud) is living in the boat.
Mud’s reveal is almost supernatural. The film cuts back down along the shoreline where Ellis and Neckbone just came from. Mud stands isolated in the middle of the frame in a place that seems out of continuity with the editing. He’s fishing, as if he’s been standing on the shore the whole time and just decided to finally reveal himself to the boys. This is the land of the tall tale, and, as Mud tells the boys of his past, it’s hard to know when Mud is taking creative liberties.
Ellis and Neckbone begins helping Mud, first after a deal made for the boat, but later it evolves into something more. Ellis continues helping more when Mud begins talking about his girl, Juniper, and his devotion to her. Amid the degradation of his parent’s marriage, Ellis yearns for some restoration in the notion of love and validation for his own romantic awakenings. Neckbone is just in it for the pistol Mud has stuffed in the back of his pants.
It must also be emphasized that Ellis exists in that sexless romanticization of the idea of love. When Neckbone finds a stash of adult magazines, Ellis is disinterested. He opts for a book about how to talk to girls. He aims his sights for a high-school girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), and believes he’s won her over when he attacks a high-school senior who was being a bit too aggressive towards May Pearl.
Love is often mingled with violence in Mud. A misconstrued and overemphasis on love leads to acts of jealousy and vengeance. The fascination with the fine line between something perceived as good and how it can easily, with just a tiny adjustment, lead people down into dark and destructive tendencies serves as both a commentary to the particulars of a place, the deep South, but also are identifiable as elements of every transition from child to adult, where strong emotions for justice and love lack perspective and self-restraint.
Where Mud falls short of Nichols’ other works is that, while both Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories work strongly as their own distinct stories of characters, Mud works much better as a thematic exploration of ideas than it does at telling a story. Every scene feels like a progression of meaning instead of existing for the character or the place.
The individual scenes and performances have their own merits, Matthew McConaughey is enthralling to watch in every single scene, but at some point the film’s idea of what it should be about overwhelm everything else. The degree to which that is a flaw will depend on the viewer’s individual view of the relationship between story and theme.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing