There is an abandoned boat stuck in a tree. Two boys, Ellis and Neckbone, want it to themselves. We don’t know why they want it. Maybe it will become their treehouse, their little sanctuary away from the hardship of their lives. They trek through the forest to reach it, and after exploring its interior, they discover fresh Penthouse magazines, unopened cans of beans, and a loaf of bread. “Someone lives here!”.
That someone is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy man who personifies many of the characteristics of mud: dirty, slimy, thick, trapping. He has isolated himself in the boat, on an island far off from civilisation. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) encounter him, and they learn that he is a fugitive, running away from a crime he committed. On the island, he hopes to rebuild the boat and sail off into the sunset of freedom with his long-time girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The only problem is, she isn’t on the island with him.
He’s an interesting character, as the two boys will soon find out. He regales them with tales of his past, of how he survived a lethal snake bite, and how the shirt on his back works like a bad luck repellant, and how he has attached nails to the heels of his boots to form a cross. The pistol he tucks into the back of his jeans makes him scary, but to the boys it makes him more interesting.
Naturally, they are consumed by his charismatic stories, and they pledge their allegiance to helping him reach his goal. This, we understand, happens because both Ellis and Neckbone have daddy issues that they’re trying to overcome. Ellis in particular has a love-hate relationship with his dad, and his parents’ imminent divorce pushes him to seek solace from a third party. Call it good timing or coincidence, but Mud proves to be the right — or the wrong — man for the job.
Neckbone doesn’t have a dad, and lives with his flippant uncle (Michael Shannon), who dives for clams and tries desperately to get into the pants of attractive women. He’s a headstrong little boy, sexually charged and itching to either look at or touch a pair of breasts. He’s more knowledgable than he looks, and his awareness of the world around him is crucial to his survival around Mud, who ends up using the boys as messengers, sending them back and forth between the island and the town, either to deliver letters to Juniper or to collect parts for his boat restoration.
Mud is a coming-of-age story, but more than that, it is a bleak look on the world of love, relationships, and trust. Ellis’ parents cannot see eye to eye. They are abusive, verbally violent, and they’re either aware or unaware of how much their quarreling affects their son. They love him dearly, and that just tears them apart even more. There’s a fantastic scene where Ellis’ dad finds out that Ellis has stolen a boat motor from his friend’s yard, and he aggressively reprimands him for it. His mother too joins in the disciplining, and through the mutual concern for the ethical behaviour of their son, both mother and father address their own demons.
Ellis falls for an older girl — named Maypearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) — in an attempt to compensate for the lack of love in his own household. To him, this is it. This is the love he has been hoping for. He thinks she’s his girlfriend. A glimmer of hope in an otherwise barren world. But to Maypearl, Ellis is nothing but a naive fourteen year old, and he finds this out in the harshest of ways. So he shifts his devotion to the love shared between Mud and Juniper, believing that they are worth all the trouble he’s gotten into. But this love, too, rots and dies, and Ellis is left a stranded soul in a vast world of disappointment.
He is a very conflicted character, eager to hope, quick to temper, but passionate in his beliefs. Tye Sheridan is outstanding in his shoes. He plays Ellis with confidence, and with a level of professionalism that I didn’t see in Quvenzhane Wallis’ Hushpuppy. Next to him, McConaughey looks subdued. But I suppose that’s okay because the movie is about Ellis and Neckbone growing up in a world that’s too big for them, and not really about Mud, even though director Jeff Nichols invests a lot of time and effort in getting us to sympathise with him.
When the movie started, I thought I was going to be watching another Beasts Of The Southern Wild. But with a more experienced director, a more focused story, more engaging child actors, and a grander thematic journey, Mud turned out to be much better. It is strong and bold. Slow at times, but never failing to maintain our attention. It is a story about children becoming adults before they’re even adults, and when the adults fail to get the job done, the children step up to give them a little push.
Best Moment | The shootout.
Worst Moment | Nope.