A Coming of Age Noir Along The Mississippi River
Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando
There aren't many directors who can make the audience feel as though they are actually part of the world displayed before our eyes when we see a movie. Some directors try but fail - James Cameron with Avatar, for example, forcefully tried to make us part of Pandora with his use of 3D - and some, like the brilliant Jeff Nichols, do so effortlessly, trusting in the work they're producing. Nichols' latest film, Mud, is a beautiful representation of the latter.
In an area unfamiliar, I'm sure, to many like myself who have never journeyed that far south, the story takes place and was shot along the Mississippi River in Arkansas. Two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, giving one of the most amazing performances of the year) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), discover a boat in a tree in the middle of a mostly desolate island along the river. They also find the boat inhabited by Mud (Matthew McConaughey, giving one of the year's best performances), a man who tells the boys that he is waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), to find him so that they can run away together.
Ellis' mother and father (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are in the early stages of divorce, which is devastating to Ellis, as he is beginning a relationship with his first serious crush (Bonnie Sturdivant). We all remember our first crush; the intense feelings, awkward interactions and maybe some sleepless nights; and Nichols captures all of these feelings beautifully, getting an amazing performance out of Sheridan. After Mud asks the boys for help, Ellis obliges after hearing Mud speak about Juniper. The love that Mud clearly has for her entrances Ellis, giving him hope when his parents have left him hopeless. The look of excitement and desperation on Ellis' part perfectly conveys the longing all of us have experienced at least once during our lives. The idea of true love being tangible has its temptations and with them a certain degree of naïveté.
Mud is one of those coming of age stories that manages to get everything right. In his creation of Ellis, Nichols succeeds in making the audience a part of the story, despite the unfamiliarity of life along the Mississippi River. Our hearts break for Ellis, yet we believe, as he does, that love will conquer all. Nichols perfectly captures the innocence of adolescence while also providing a noirish backdrop for all the characters to live within.
Mud, we find out, is a fugitive for a crime I won't spoil in this review. Suffice it to say that, in addition to being pursued by authorities, some very bad men want him dead. With every task Ellis performs to help Mud, including finding and speaking with Juniper, Ellis places himself in more danger. McConaughey is stellar as Mud, portraying the character as somewhat of a simpleton with deadly skills, especially if someone threatens a person he cares about. Mud is thus the grown up version of Ellis, at least if Ellis doesn't learn from Mud's mistakes.
It's hard, I imagine, for anyone not to sympathize with both Ellis' and Mud's plight. This is a film that asks the audience to revisit the intense feelings young adulthood provides but also to recall the moment in time where suddenly we realized it was time to grow up. It's never easy for anyone, but it happens to us all, and Ellis' story is a beautiful representation of that time in our lives. This is a film about lost innocence and the acceptance of truth in extreme circumstances. Life is always simpler when we're young, or so we think. But Nichols knows better, and invites us into his story about lost youth by allowing us to remember our own.