Here’s the narrative: talented indie director sweats blood to get funding for his first picture, finally gets it made, it lands in some prestigious festivals and gets a distribution deal, the second film is easier to get funded, and by his third film, major movie stars want to work with him, making everything, funding and distribution, way way easier. And he’s launched. And if he’s very lucky and very disciplined, he gets to stay true to his vision. For awhile.
That’s Jeff Nichols. Still in his thirties, with two terrific films under his belt, and now here’s Mud, his third feature. The first film, written and directed by Nichols, was Shotgun Stories, with the great Michael Shannon in a film about a Southern blood feud that damages, and nearly destroys, two families. Next up: Take Shelter, Shannon again starring in a film about a working man who has apocalyptic visions, which prompt him to build an underground shelter in his backyard, and Jessica Chastain as the loyal wife who, faced with her husband’s apparent madness, nonetheless sticks with him. I loved both these films tremendously, recommend them without reservation, and was thrilled to see Mud, which more than lives up the promise of its predecessors. And Michael Shannon’s in this too, in a tiny part, an emerging star doing a favor for a director he admires.
Mud is set along the Mississippi, far enough South that the river’s wide and fearsome. Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, so brilliant in The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are river rats, used to survival on the river, used to finding spare parts to keep outboard motors running, used to fishing and boating and selling fish for profit. Close to their town is a midstream island, much like the island where Huck Finn hides out. On the island, caught up in trees is a boat, a vestige from a flood. And living in the boat is a stranger, a colorful storytelling romantic who tells them to call him Mud. It’s Matthew McConaughey, looking raggedy and careworn.
Parenthetically: whatever happened to Matthew McConaughey? It seemed like he was coasting along in the romcom/action flick circuit, a serviceable and attractive presence in a series of forgettable films. Suddenly, the last three years, he’s been brilliant in a whole buncha oddball indie films: Killer Joe, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Paperboy, Mud. It’s as though Jennifer Anniston suddenly decided she wanted Maggie Gyllenhaal’s career, and even more shockingly, turned out to have the talent to pull it off.
Sorry. I keep getting distracted for some reason. But this film succeeds or fails on McConaughey’s performance. Mud’s hiding on this island for a reason. He’s a killer. Turns out he’s in love with Juniper, the loveliest girl in the world, with tattoos of birds on her hands. And she loves him, sort of, but keeps breaking his heart, sleeping with no account losers who beat her up, and who he is obliged to beat up in response. And her most recent beating was so terrible, Mud had to kill the guy, and now his murder victim’s family (led by a terrifying paterfamilias played with craggy-faced perfection by Joe Don Baker) is out to get him. So Mud’s hiding, on the island, trying to get the boat down from the trees, fix it so it runs again, and then head off with Juniper on it, riding to freedom on the Big River. And the only way he can do any of that is if the boys, Ellis and Neckbone, can help him.
It’s a difficult part, Mud, Huck Finn grown up, a romantic with a penchant for violence, a not-entirely reliable story-teller, a dangerous and hapless and frightened man. And McConaughey pulls it off. I believed him every second, and rooted for him, and was desperate for him and Juniper to get back together. Of the two boys, Ellis is the leader, but also more romantic–Neckbone a follower, but much more pragmatic. Both kid actors were wonderful too.
It’s a movie about the power of story-telling, mythic in its sweep, but also rooted in that great American river, with its many meanings and uses. It’s also a coming-of age story, about a boy, Ellis, as he learns about the complexities of men and woman, and, to some extent, about the perfidy of women. Because that’s there too–women can’t be entirely trusted. Women will ruin your life.
That thread is woven into the fabric of the movie, and I’m making the movie sound sexist and trite, neither of which, I think, it is. (Nichols’ previous films weren’t sexist). It’s more like a movie told from the point of view of men, and more specifically, fourteen year-old boys. Ellis is fourteen, and has a crush on a high school senior, Mae Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). When Ellis punches out an older boy making unwelcome advances, she’s briefly intrigued by him; agrees to go out with him (to a party), agrees, ever so briefly, to be his girlfriend. But she’s three years older at a time in life when three years may as well be thirty–pretty soon she’s not returning his calls, and it hurts a bit when she breaks poor Ellis’ heart. But come on. There’s nothing about the relationship that doesn’t ring true–fourteen year olds get crushes on pretty, older girls, and are hurt when the girls don’t feel the same way about them. And young hearts are briefly broken, and just as quickly mend.(Michael Shannon plays Neckbone’s uncle, and recommends a relationship book, which, he solemnly promises, tells you everything you need to know about relationships–a continuing joke in the film is how clueless Shannon’s character is about women).
More complicated is the relationship between Ellis and his parents, Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson). Their marriage is turning sour–she wants to move to town, he makes his living off the river–and Ellis sees it all, but can’t understand. And his father–the one he’s closer to–tries awkwardly to explain, but his own bitterness and pain make it hard to him to be fair. A child–even one as clearly sharp as Ellis–can’t be expected to understand the complexities of adults divorcing; he withdraws, and finds himself even more drawn to the great romance of Mud and Juniper.
Which is the most screwed-up relationship in the movie, turns out. Juniper is played by Reese Witherspoon, a smallish part for an Oscar winner, and a complicated and not remotely likeable character. But she’s superb. Juniper does love Mud, sort of. But she’s so inured to abuse, she can’t bring herself to trust those feelings. She’s a lost soul, desperate for connection and affection, and almost willful in her determination to punish herself for loving Mud, and to punish Mud for loving her.
It’s an extraordinary performance in a wonderful film, a lovely film, melancholy and beautiful and brutal. Remember when Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon would have been seen as the perfect casting for a formulaic meet-cute romantic comedy? Instead, they’re in this, this savage and self-destructive relationship film, about pain and loss and violence and finally, for one second, a moment of rueful truth. I’m richer for having seen it; it’s out on Netflix now.