2012 | Jeff Nichols
The opening shot of Mud features Ellis (Tye Sheridan) sneaking out of the house, accidentally eavesdropping on his father (Senior, played by Ray McKinnon) refusing to speak to his mother (Mary Lee, played by Sarah Paulson) about something important. The dynamic isn’t working, Mary Lee isn’t happy, but Senior is either too scared, or too stubborn to want to talk about it. Family, and love, is ultimately what the film is about, as Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) take Ellis’ boat to a small island down-river, where an old boat has been washed ashore after a flood. They befriend Mud (Matthew McConaughey) a mysterious loner who asks them to return with food the next day.
The boys learn Mud is a felon, wanted for murder. Mud confirms this story, telling the boys he murdered the man who beat up the love of his life, Juniper (Reece Witherspoon), the woman he would do anything for. He has been in love with her since he was Ellis’ age (around fourteen) and has followed her all over the countryside, although it seems she doesn’t feel the same about him. With this revelation, Mud addresses his true reason for “living” on the island, and why he needs the boys’ help: he wants the boat so he can sail downriver, away from the law and the army of bounty hunters (hired by his victim’s father) who are out to get him.
The film effortlessly slips between drama and adventure in the first half of the film, as Ellis and Neckbone become closer and closer to Mud, including reuniting him with Tom (Sam Shephard), a grizzled veteran who lives across the river from Ellis, and has been a reluctant father figure of sorts for Mud, who we learn grew up in the town he is trying so anxiously not to step foot in. McConaughey is listed as the lead, although he is far from it, taking more of a backseat to Ellis, providing fatherly, sometimes sage wisdom to Ellis, without really ever addressing anything. This is the powerful bond of surrogacy, as Ellis struggles with his own family and love life, he insists on helping Mud escape and reunite with his lover Juniper. Not because he feels he has to, but because love is worth fighting for, and fight they do.
Where the film begins to meander is in the second half, when an army of bounty hunters start stalking Juniper in her hotel room and begin to secretly follow Ellis, under suspicion he is assisting Juniper and Mud in their endeavours. The film begins to switch between love to revenge, to low-budget thriller. Despite all this the underscoring theme never changes: family. The bounty hunters are acting on the wishes of a father and a brother who wish to avenge their loved one. Ellis is struggling to cope with the separation of his. Mud has no family. He loves Juniper and Tom and grows especially fond of Ellis as a younger brother, however Juniper, Tom and many others take time to advise Ellis that Mud is bad news. Ellis ignores them all, because love and family are worth everything. Even if it means putting your neck out there for someone who may or may not deserve it.
The film is neat. It is not fancy, it isn’t slick and while it veers off-track as it goes on, director Jeff Nichols paints a picture of hope, despair and one again, hope. Based along the Arkansas rivers, the landscapes are wide, free and full of optimism. Ellis feels at home on the river. He doesn’t want to move into town with his mother, as he tells his father. It isn’t for him. In town, Ellis is unable to find happiness in an unremarkable town which on the most part appears empty, even at times when a town should be bustling. It is a fisherman’s town, but it is far from small. It’s far from rundown, but it’s never anything more than a pitstop on the way to something better. It is a stark contrast to the film’s final shot: looking ahead, there is nothing but river and the horizon. Freedom.