Engaging an audience in a truly captivating sense of wonder is a lost art form in the realm of cinema, or at least it has become so rare that we begin to forget how magical the silver screen experience can be.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols' latest atmospheric drama Mud continues his notable prestige for dramatic film making by creating a pure slice of Americana; an evocative and poignant coming of age tale that borrows the lyricism of Tennessee Williams works and mixes them with the harmonious sensitivity of a Sam Shepard play, who is ironically enough in a supporting role in the film, creating a witty and insightful modern day Mark Twain influenced adventure.
The story narrows in on Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two fourteen year old boys hungering for adventure, girls, and excitement in their lives. Ellis lives with his miserable father and his unsatisfied mother, while Neckbone resides with his womanizing uncle. They discover on an island located distally from their home that there is a large boat stuck in a tree, housing food and pornographic magazines showing signs that someone lives there. That man, they find, is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive housing a checkered past and now making due with little in the middle of nowhere, attempting to reconnect with his love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
The setting for this film is the Mississippi River. It dominates this film as it dominates the lives of the main characters in this film. This is not a film about small-town America. There is a small town, in which everyone knows everyone, but most of the action takes place out of town, out on the river, and out in the uninhabited areas of the river's ecosystem. The two fourteen year old boys and their families, are river people, making a precarious living from the river. Life is hard but the people are hard-working, honest and resourceful. If Mark Twain was writing now, these are the people he would be writing about.
This film could have easily strayed into The Selfish Giant's territory of making us pity the boys because of their lives as 'river kids', but it doesn't do that and that's important. We support these kids and we want them to succeed, but we're never made to pity them, thankfully.
One questions the motive of the boys to continue to help Mud, even after discovering what horror he committed. Because Ellis's parents are enduring hellish circumstances and losing love in one another, his commitment to helping Mud find Juniper seems stronger than Neckbone's because he doesn't want to see a couple who should be together remain distant. This is one of the many lenses you can see Mud through. The film is such a visceral, multi-layered experience that each person has the ability to find something different or subtly unique that lies within the story's seemingly direct roots. I felt like I was going through the emotions with the two boys, as if I was there. It was an incredible feeling. I've never felt as close to a film as I have with Mud.
However, Mud can also be seen as a rural coming-of-age story, not far off from the likes of Rob Reiner's impeccable Stand By Me, which, too, centered on young kids become more unified because of a dangerous adventure. But it also borrows liberally elements of neo-noir, Southern Gothic and melodrama while being filmed as if it was based on some great novel that was never written. There's nothing wrong with looking at Mud simplistically, as a drama centered around early-teenagers, because even when you do that, you still get a wonderful, more-than-complete package with performances that are enriching and an adventure that's unbelievable. Matthew McConaughey, again, gives an astonishingly capable performance after coming off of the likes of the beautifully quirky Bernie, the unfairly-ostracized Magic Mike, and the haunting, yet enigmatic Killer Joe. It's safe to say that McConaughey has made enough money so that he can shy away from the pathetic romantic-comedy or dull action hero in favor of riskier, more reclusive projects that test him as an actor. Teaming up with Jeff Nichols was certainly the right bet, as this is closest to the most perfect movie experiences I've had all year. It makes for a ripping good yarn that should please a wide audience thirsty for drama with a bit of heart and some sentimentality (without ever being sappy).
It was refreshing to watch and I was truly engrossed, and considering I watched this on a laptop screen I think that's pretty impressive.