Jeff Nichols' feature Take Shelter was one of the best films of 2011, and his prior film Shotgun Stories is excellent, so it stands to reason I would be pretty excited for his latest, Mud. This tale of runaway outlaws and boys coming-of-age and family entanglements and also boating stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a well-meaning kid living on a houseboat in small-town Arkansas whose parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the verge of separating. An impressively independent young teen, Ellis spends much of his time paling around with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), going on adventures in their motorboat. One morning they discover Mud (Matthew MacConaughey), a mysterious criminal on the run, camped out on a small island. Ellis decides to trust him, and he and Neckbone help Mud evade a vengeful family hunting him while also attempting to reunite him with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Immersing the viewer fully in the funny, transformative, and at times tragic experiences of a 14-year-old boy, Mud is a compelling film that blends honest emotional drama with sensationalistic context. Nichols creates a world seen through Ellis's eyes, where his parents' crumbling marriage and his own first-time dating missteps make a dirty outlaw's doomed romance something worth fighting for. The adults in his life are all so flawed, so disappointing, that he latches on to the one adult whose tall tales and adventurous lifestyle somehow create a hero, despite frequent reminders that he's not. Thematically it is sad but utterly realistic, even if the plot points are over the top, and I spent the whole movie knowing this poor naive kid was in for some heavy revelations by the end. It's not all hopeless, of course, and indeed a good portion of the script is humorous (especially anything involving Michael Shannon's wacky uncle character), but it grounds itself in this general process of growing up and learning to navigate the complicated interplay of love, loss, and lies.
Moving between Ellis's home life and his secret life helping Mud, Mud maintains a fairly tight focus on the boy, and Nichols draws out a wonderfully expressive performance from Tye Sheridan. McConaughey continues his impressive spurt of awesome roles, donning false teeth and a lot of dirt for the character, and he does well to remain on the edge of earnest well-meaning-ness and volatile violence. Supporters Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker (whaaat?) Michael Shannon, and fellow Boardwalk Empire castmember Paul Sparks all do well, too, though of course Shannon is the standout. You'll notice a lot of male names being tossed around so far. Well that's because this is a super dude-centric movie, which is a thing that happens often enough and I don't really have issues with it. But I do have issues with the women who are in this movie, since they all get short-changed in terms of writing and development. Ellis's mom is a barely-there villain whose desire to leave her husband will result in their houseboat being reclaimed by the government. She is meant to be sympathetic but isn't given enough time to actually explain her position or even exude much of a personality, while the terse father is given plenty of monologues. Ellis's pseudo-girlfriend is just a manipulative jerk for absolutely no reason, like even more than "bitchy teen girl" standards seem to allow. Mud's tragic love Juniper gets the most attention, and I can tell Nichols wanted to give her some dimension and motivation, but she also comes off as a jerk, fulfilling the "slutty" mold that exterior male characters had already fit her in.
Like his other films, Mud is a compelling, understated look at complicated relationships and the day-to-day existence of a small Southern town, but I wasn't as won over this time around. I loved the performances and the more thriller-y bits, as well as the bittersweet focus on a boy's evolving understanding of love's complexities, but the underwritten female characters took away from the experience for me.
Pair This Movie With: There are a few options I thought of. If you want more Nichols, this reminded me more of Shotgun Stories for its focus on male familial relationships and general tone. I also thought of Son of Rambow a few times mainly because Neckbone reminded me of the main kid. But I think the coolest pairing might be the True Grit remake, not sure why, but I feel like its atmosphere and outlaw characters and grown-ups making pacts with pre-teens would all fit together for a double feature.