Sundance Review: Mud
Awardwinning writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Shotgun Stories) pays homage to the adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn and a dying way of life on the Arkansas river in Mud. Nichols began working on the story in the 1990s, and delivers an engaging and mystical tale of broken hearts and strong friendships.
When teenage boys Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) venture to an island in the Arkansas River to investigate a boat stranded in a tree by floodwaters, they discover an inhabitant -- a fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Shrouded by mystery and full of odd superstitions, Mud awaits a reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). A hot pursuit is underway for him by both police and bounty hunters on the payroll of the powerful King (Joe Don Baker), whose son was killed by Mud.
At 135 minutes, Mud may seem a bit long as it meanders like the river it takes place on but it's hard to identify where to trim.The cinematography and production design effectively captures the slow-pace of the Arkansas River delta. Full of subplots and interesting characters, Nichols conveys personal stories including experiencing young love and dealing with rejection and divorce.
McConaughey continues his streak of memorable performances as the enigmatic Mud -- not surprising as Nichols wrote the character with McConaughey in mind. Young actors Sheridan (Tree of Life) and Lofland are impressive in their portrayals of best friends. Sam Shepard is also effective as Tom Blankenship, Ellis' neighbor who is a former sniper in the Armed Forces and knows much about Mud's history.
Take Shelter lead Michael Shannon has a supporting role as the uncle who raises orphaned Neck, and delivers some of the most humorous lines and scenes in Mud. The performance that I was least impressed by is that of Witherspoon as Juniper, who came across a bit too lackluster as the young woman who can't break the habit of attracting bad boyfriends.
Mud twists and turns with a slightly unexpected ending that should satisfy most adults. Be aware that despite the story being told from Ellis' perspective, the film is rated PG-13 based on some violence and language unsuitable for younger audiences.
Austin/Texas connections: Jeff Nichols lives in Austin, as do Matthew McConaughey and composer David Wingo. Tye Sheridan is from Eckhart, and Joe Don Baker is a Texas native. Austin post-production house Stuck On On worked on the film's sound.