Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I went through a few different stages of preparedness before stepping into the theater for today’s screening of Jeff Nichols’ Mud. The first stage was unbridled excitement. Nichols’ Take Shelter was my favorite film last year and also featured my hands-down favorite 2011 performance from its star Michael Shannon.
Then I started hearing that the early buyers screening didn’t go very well, that people were disappointed. Okay, let’s get those expectations reasonable… I was still excited, of course… buyers were fickle and are, as a rule, more concerned with marketability than the quality of the film.
Then press started seeing it and my twitter feed filled up with people calling it a disaster. “Oh, fuck.” I thought. “Sophomore Slump” echoed through my mind as I sat down to watch the film. My expectations weren’t rock bottom, but I was worried.
Call it low expectations if you will, but after the film played I wanted to slap every negative tweeter for giving me a needless scare.
Mud is not Take Shelter. While you can feel Nichols’ voice throughout, it’s a completely different film. Where Take Shelter had a very singular focus and was an internal insight of one man struggling with his own grip on reality, Mud is more of a southern-fried examination of love and honor as interpreted through the young eyes of Ellis, played by Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan.
Love doesn’t just play a little part in the overall story here… that’s what the whole damn film is about. Everything that happens represents our young lead’s views on love. He’s being pulled in multiple directions… his parents are on the verge of separation, while he’s falling in love for the first time with a cute, popular girl. Ellis is a romantic, he has yet to have his heart broken. He believes in love and wants it badly. His father (Ray McKinnon), on the other hand, is having a hard time with the distance growing between him and his wife (Sarah Paulson). His fatherly advice isn’t so hot on the topic of love at the moment.
Representing Ellis’ spirit animal of sorts is Matthew McConaughey’s title character, Mud… a strange man hiding out on a small island in the river. Mud is almost mythical… he’s mysterious, charming, has a cool snake tattoo, has an almost childlike belief in the supernatural, has an optimistic outlook on life and is a hopeless, helpless romantic. And he’s got a gun!
Ellis and his buddy, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hear about a boat that is lodged in a tree, left there by a previous year’s flood, so they sneak away to this island to have a look and that’s when they find Mud. He’s hiding out from someone or something.
Another filmmaker might have chosen to make McConaughey’s mystery the focus of the story, but Nichols instead stays with the boy. In the press room they play the press conferences over a half dozen TVs and I heard Nichols mention Mark Twain a few times. That rings true… Coming at it from a certain angle, you can recognize a little Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in Ellis and Neckbone. It also doesn’t hurt the comparison that they live on the river.
If I can fault the movie for anything its that it way underutilizes two fantastic actors. Michael Shannon plays Neckbone’s clam-diving uncle and has a particular love for The Beach Boys’ Help Me Rhonda (the best use of that song in a film since Short Circuit 2), but he’s a very small presence in the film.
The other actor is one of the main heavies, an older gentleman looking for Mud with murderous intentions. When you want an older Southern hardass who is the first name that pops into mind?
It better be Joe Don Baker! It’s so good to see him on the screen, but he’s hardly in the movie. He gets one great scene and then is relegated to being the presence that’s more felt than seen.
I could watch a movie just about either of these two men, which I guess is the mark of a great ensemble. Still, it left me wanting more.
One character actor who isn’t short-changed (in fact he gets a moment that made the 3,000-strong audience cheer in unison) is Sam Shepard, who plays a mysterious loner living on the opposite bank of the river from Ellis. He's kind of the Boo Radley of the story. You don't really know who he is or what he's capable of until the time of greatest need comes...
I'm quite taken with this movie, which is a pleasant relief. My only guess as to why other critics didn't like it is that they wanted another Take Shelter, which is a brilliant film and has a gut-punch of an ending. Mud is a more traditional narrative, a small coming of age story set against a big backdrop of life in the south.