Ellis and Neckbone, two fourteen-year-old boys in small-town Arkansas, find a boat stuck high in a tree on a small island and claim it as their own, kicking off a wonderful heartwarming summer adventure. Well, not exactly, but when a film starts that way, I’m remembering my days with Disney, back when I was a fourteen-year-old boy. Mud is definitely not a Disney film. It starts calmly enough, to be sure, though the island stream full of baby cottonmouths is a bad omen, but when Ellis falls in love with a sixteen-year-old girl who seems to return his affections, Ellis indeed seems to be having that most romantic and adventurous of summers.
The problem is that the boat in question already has an occupant, a mysterious fellow by the name of Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), who carries a gun. Mud says he’s waiting on the island for his girlfriend Juniper and enlists the boys to help him get food and other supplies. Ellis, the young romantic, is eager to assist in the cause of love, but he is in way over his head and his adventure is just going to get darker and darker, as is the marriage of his parents and, well, let’s just say that he is in for a rude awakening.
Mud is a slow-paced, suspenseful, old-fashioned coming-of-age story with great cinematography and an incredible ensemble cast, which includes Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker and Ray McKinnon, all of whom do outstanding work. And Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are simply awesome as Ellis and Neckbone, reminding me of Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix in Stand By Me. McConaughey rounds it off with a perfect performance as Mud.
Meanwhile, the writing and direction of Jeff Nichols is nothing short of brilliant (no surprise from the man who made Take Shelter, one of my favourite films of 2011). Aside from the last fifteen minutes (what a challenge those fifteen minutes must be for screenwriters), almost all of Mud rings true, with an unerring sense of place and with many nuggets of wisdom. The highlight for me was the character of Ellis. I understood every thought in Ellis’s mind and every action that he took. With a minor difference or two, I can imagine thinking and acting in precisely that way when I was fourteen, even though I grew up in a very different environment. To me, this was an amazing and haunting revelation.
If it were not for those final fifteen minutes, which I cannot talk about, Mud, like Take Shelter, may have received ****. I’m still tempted, but I’m stingy with my four star reviews and I think I will let this great film slide into ***+ range. My mug is up.