Mark Twain is often praised for the colloquial simplicity of his prose, the light touch of his humor, his gentle exploration of adolescent identity and social values. But often left behind is his understated magical realism: the extraordinary leaping frogs, escaped convicts, buried treasure and medieval kingdoms that help lend his work such a back-porch tall-tale feeling. Jeff Nichols’ “Mud” taps into this same particular vein of Americana, crafting a folksy bildungsroman out of the detritus floating down the Mississippi. Boats in trees, enigmatic strangers, a girl with nightingales tattooed on the back of her hand – such fanciful elements could find a place in the latest Wes Anderson-inspired indie quirkfest, but Nichols grounds his story in an overwhelmingly specific sense of place and a very tangible atmosphere of danger. There is a recognition by both Twain and Nichols that our imaginations can run to adventure, peril and heartbreak just as easily as to hope and fulfillment.
Our Huck Finn surrogate for “Mud” is Ellis (Ty Sheridan), a young Arkansas teenager who stumbles across that whimsically beeched boat while exploring the Mississippi with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). The boys claim the vessel as their own, but quickly discover that someone’s a step ahead of them: an enigmatic man by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has taken up residence on the isolated river island. Crosses in his boot-heels and a menacing glint in his eye, Mud is simultaneously a threat and a temptation: his intentions are unclear, but his charismatic drawl and confident air is enough to make the boys, especially Ellis, curious.
If Mud appeals to Ellis’ adolescent desire for risk and rebellion, the appearance of Mud’s lady friend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) helps stir up a few other yearnings. Gradually Mud’s plan takes shape: having killed one of Juniper’s former, abusive lovers, the wanderer is looking to get his boat in the water and steal away with Juniper down to the Gulf, under the noses of state troopers and avenging mobsters. Mud spins a story of true love thwarted to Ellis, and the idea of helping Mud and Juniper finally consummate their star-crossed romance ensnares the boy’s quietly raging hormones.
Nichols has a smart grip on the truth that the prospect of love (or at least sex) guides most every decision made by a fourteen-year-old male. A side-plot regarding Ellis’ courtship of an older high-school crush at first seems superfluous, until you realize that thoughts of May Pearl are clouding everything Ellis sees: not only Mud and Juniper’s dangerous liaisons, but the concurrent breakdown of his parents’ marriage. Though the film is named for McConaughey’s entrancing, folk-wisdom spewing drifter, the true center of the film is Ellis and the gradual dissolution of his childish, oversimple conceptions of love.
The authenticity of this coming-of-age transformation does wonders for the scenes between Ellis and Mud, who is stuck in the same kind of adolescent emotional delusion. But it does a great disservice to the film’s female characters, who, burdened with the task of breaking these poor boys’ hearts, come off as uniformly cruel and pernicious. May Pearl is oblivious, Ellis’ mother is never given a chance to properly explain her grievances, and Juniper arbitrarily swings between devoted girlfriend and disloyal floozy. Witherspoon gives an admirable effort, but it’s a weakness in Nichols’ screenplay that the only justifications for Juniper’s hesitation are a few speeches about how the boys don’t know who Mud “really is.” A late scene attempts to rehabilitate Juniper somewhat, tempering her betrayal with questions about Mud’s past and hinting at the misguided nature of his idealism. But by this point it’s too late: the audience, like Ellis, has fallen hard for Mud, and this kind of vague, understated shading does little to trump the vagabond’s romanticism.
Considering the current state of American mainstream cinema, it’s slightly wearying to be stuck yet again in the mindset of a young adolescent male. But “Mud” does manage to transcend this thematic arrested development, since Nichols is at least a director of subtlety and considerable technical proficiency. While most American filmmakers remain obsessed with frantic, furtive coast dwellers (East and West alike), Nichols has quickly established an intimate familiarity with the more luxuriant pace of rural Middle America. “Take Shelter” was a brooding contemplation of contemporary blue-collar paranoia, and “Mud” similarly meanders, absorbing not just narrative details but the whole environment in which they unfold. It’s to Nichols’ credit that he can make scenes set at a strip mall and inside a Piggly Wiggly as atmospheric as a boat ride down the Mississippi.
It also helps that Nichols has gathered his best ensemble yet: his perpetual creative partner Michael Shannon is on hand in a small role, of course, but a great assemblage of character actors like Joe Don Baker, Ray McKinnon and the incomparable Sam Shepard nail the brusque, independent quality of this small country community. Even Sarah Paulson, who I have never found particularly convincing in any of her TV or film roles, seems right at home as Ellis’ gentle but weary mother. But “Mud” mostly belongs to McConaughey, Sheridan, and Lofland, three boys (one overgrown) eagerly living out their own Gary Paulsen novel. It’s been said a number of times by now, but this really is career-best work from McConaughey, exploiting the sinister side of his suavity but constantly staying empathetic.
As an examination of the possibilities and folly of young love, “Mud” can’t quite break out of some emphatically juvenile attitudes toward masculinity. But as an evocative thriller, Nichols’ film displays a strong imagination and a bit of Herzog’s “voodoo of location.” Put “Mud” on the streets of New York and too many questions arise; but out in the backwoods of Arkansas, anything can happen.
Now playing in indie theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars