Unfortunately, few serious-minded films adopt for their setting what some urban wags derisively call "flyover country," but Arkansas native Jeff Nichols has made it a point to honor Middle America. The writer-director set his auspicious 2007 debut Shotgun Stories in Arkansas and his acclaimed second feature, Take Shelter, in Ohio. Nichols returns to his Arkansas roots for Mud, a highly personal tale of undergrown men and overgrown boys experiencing the growing pains of love turned unrequited, and the realization that nothing—not freedom, not security, not innocence, not love—lasts forever.
Mud takes the subjective viewpoint of fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, one of the boys from Terence Malick's The Tree of Life). Ellis doesn't give a second thought to his life on a houseboat with his folks (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, gently representing for misunderstood parents everywhere): he likes it just fine, pitching in with his father's scrape-by fishing trade and literally testing the waters of the Arkansas delta with his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). But we meet Ellis at a key transitional adolescent moment, when his built-up self-confidence gives way to a new series of insecurities. The most predictable of these is Ellis' initiation to the dating world, which he explores with admirable nerve by striking an out-of-line older boy, then striking up a conversation with the girl at hand, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). Ellis' dubious gallantry—more primally hormonal than reasoned—confirms trouble ahead for the first-time lover, bold but naive.
Less predictable but no less disruptive to Ellis's status quo are the suddenly impending divorce of his parents, which rattles the boy's very worldview, and his surprise encounter with a drifter calling himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Across the Mississippi River, on a small island, a boat has become lodged in the high branches of a tree ("Hell of a thing," Mud enthuses). The wishfully thinking Ellis and Neck intended to make the boat their own, but they discover Mud has moved in while he awaits a reunion with his girlfriend Juniper (an entirely resonant Reese Witherspoon). Obviously, Mud also has reason to lay low (or high), and there's plenty more than meets the eye, which, as it is, includes a gun stuck in the back of his jeans. But Mud's confident masculinity makes him magnetic to the searching Ellis, at just the moment his father has become a disappointment.
The river, the island, the gun, and the situation of a domestically dissatisfied boy drawn to adventure and faced with a rogue all bring to mind The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. This acknowledged literary touchstone and the authenticity of setting make Mud a uniquely American tale, but all the same the universal blooms from the specific. Like any boy working out life, Ellis has much to think on: the mysteries of love and marriage, and what kind of man he needs to be to solve and thereby master them. Every man around seems to have an opinion on the subject, including Ellis' father ("Man's supposed to be in charge of his own affairs"), Mud ("As men, we've got to take advantage where we can"), Neck's uncle and guardian Galen (Michael Shannon, who has appeared in every Nichols film), and Ellis's neighbor—and Mud's grizzled father figure—Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who makes his point about Mud in the form of a question ("You think he's a badass, don't you?") even though he knows he's wasting his breath.
Because men can talk themselves blue, but there's no substitute for experience. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, the first lesson being disillusionment of the worst kind: betrayal in love. At various times, both Ellis and Mud wear worrying expressions of entrancement at the natural allure of Juniper, and Ellis' reckless heart heedlessly opens itself to hurt from all corners: his parents, May Pearl, and the slippery Mud. "You can't trust love," Ellis' father warns. "If you're not careful, it'll up and run out on you." Nichols gives wry musical expression to this lesson in the "doin' it song" favored by Galen: the Beach Boys classic "Help Me, Rhonda." Like Nichols, Galen sees the song's yearning as half-full, as a promise of moving onward and growing upward: "So you get your heart broke? Don't walk around with a shit look on your face. Get back in there."
There's nary a disappointing performance in Mud, from the distinctively real newcomer Lofland up to the veteran Shepard, whose work as a playwright echoes through Nichols's oeuvre. But what takes Mud over the top—despite an incongruous action climax—is the phenomenal work of McConaughey and Sheridan, who clearly bring up each other's game. Both show seemingly limitless capacity for subtle intellectual and emotional projection, and when the script calls for the intensity they've been holding in reserve to spill out, neither disappoints; instead their emotional truth—in quietly breathtaking character arcs—powerfully confirms Nichols' themes. Mud's perspective is unapologetically male, but posits a prismatic diversity of masculinity productive for the reflection of any unfinished man.
Lionsgate sends Mud home in a Blu-ray special edition that features a beautiful transfer and a winning collection of extras. The picture quality is outstanding: obviously the spanking-new source is clean, clear, and detailed, but the image is particularly distinguished in its rich color and insinuating contrast. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix also can't be faulted: few films benefit more from environmental ambience than this one, which subtly renders the Arkansas delta in a way that helps to envelop the viewer in the story. Dialogue, too, comes through with crystal clarity.
Nichols provides a director's commentary that can't be beat. Leaving few gaps, Nichols lays out every pertinent detail of the story's development, his directorial choices, work with the actors, and production, along with discussion of why the material resonates so much for him personally.
"A Personal Tale" (11:37, HD) expands on that lasy point, but also serves as an all-around featurette including set footage and interview clips from the cast and producers.
"The Arkansas Ensemble" (7:11, HD) allows the same contributors to comment on actors, characters, and casting in a swift survey of all the major players.
"Southern Authenticity" (6:14, HD) hones in on the film's setting, as understood and respected by Nichols.
Lastly, "The Snake Pit" (1:30, HD) examines the filming of a key sequence.
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