Film review: Mud


Directed by Jeff Nichols

Opens Friday, May 17

4.5 stars

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who delivered a striking pair of films in Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories, hands out another smart, thrilling piece of cinema. Though Michael Shannon doesn’t star (as in the previous two) he is present in a minor role. That’s alright, as Matthew McConaughey aptly delivers, as he has in his recent string of such indie hits as Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Bernie.

McConaughey plays the title character, a mysterious drifter living in a boat that’s lodged in a tree. No, it’s not a discarded storyline from Lost, but as 14-year-old Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) discover, Mud is more than just a quirky guy with stories to tell, a gun, a good tan and a snake tattoo. There’s a girl (Greasy Reese Witherspoon) that Mud killed for, a group of bounty hunters (lead by Boardwalk Empire’s Paul Sparks) on his trail and a few family problems for Ellis on his Arkansas river houseboat (his parents, played  by the always underused Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon, are splitting up).

There’s a lot of story going on here, but it all works towards something and is not simply present to flesh out the character of Ellis, who is expertly played by relative newcomer Sheridan (kudos to the filmmakers for casting actual teens, Degrassi-style). Ellis goes through a lot while he and his River Phoenix-looking pal help Mud out of his jam – he’s a kid with principles in a bad situation, trying to do the right thing. He falls in love with an older girl (another great newcomer, Bonnie Sturdivant) and his story subtly parallels Mud’s throughout.

The pacing of the two hour piece clicks along quickly, though it never feels fast. It’s the type to take its time while never lagging – like a good episode of The Sopranos, you always know there’s something insane around the next corner. It also helps that the film is beautifully photographed by constant Nichols collaborator Adam Stone. The Steadicam seems to float over the landscapes when it does move, otherwise it lingers quietly or is neatly locked down. There’s a placid quality to it that allows the story to unravel on its own.

The best thing about Mud is that it’s a film we’ve seen before, but it feels new. There’s a guy, a girl, some kids and a gun – all the elements are there, but because of the masterful performances, intricate dialogue and Arkansas sun, it feels fresh.

Nicholas Friesen is a filmmaker and the Managing Editor of The Uniter. Follow him @Nicholastronaut