With only a pistol and lucky shirt to his name, Mud (Matthew McConaughey) requires just about all the help he can get. Taking shelter on an island where, by happenstance, a boat is lodged in between tree trunks, Mud is the guy who gingerly strolls into the lives of Ellis and Neckbone with calculated charisma. His disheveled demeanor pulls the characters of Mud and the audience in what amounts to a very traditionally-designed American film. Jeff Nichols’ third feature firmly establishes him as a director molded by the kind of American films like Martin Ritt’s Hud and Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show – with Mud being of comparable merit.
In the wake of Nichols’ previous films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, he has shown a steady inclination and dependency for plotting. Shotgun Stories was hailed for its ruminative and pensive idling but in effect spread its narrative devices fairly thin. Take Shelter was something more internalizing though adopted a clearer structure with Michael Shannon’s lead performance providing the film his now trademark capriciousness. Mud is very structured in its narrative development and sequences of events. From the discovery of Mud’s tree-boat squatting to Ellis providing the drifter with help, the linearity of the film’s structure is at both times commendable and disappointing. There’s a lingering sense throughout much of the picture that all is not what it seems, especially as Ellis contends with a disintegrating family and social life. It all comes as a bit of a shock as when it is discovered that virtually all the information that Mud provides to his young partners is true. This might have something to do with Matthew McConaughey’s performance and the imagery evoked of Mud.
It’s been a topic of discussion now for the past year following performances in Magic Mike and Bernie – McConaughey has evolved into something of a Robert Mitchum-type of actor whose commanding presence is the result of some sort of smarmy charisma. His performance in Mud is layered in its provocations of love and the naivety that comes with it. With much of the Mud’s imagery depicting the Mississippi River with mythic reverence, the sense that there is something lying beneath is perhaps what led me to believe the picture would detour into some sort of “moment of truth” realization.
What the film does portend is a sense of unity amongst men and to aspire for values that befit communal living. It functions in interesting contrast to Nichols’ prior work, Take Shelter, as that was a film that attempted to reconcile a man’s growing mental instability for the safety and benefit of those around him. And perhaps to a fault, this dichotomy hinders an otherwise flawless cinematic experience. Mud’s male perspective is simply too one-sided – at times registering as jaded. This becomes the case when viewing Ellis’ family life, where his mother and father are afforded varied screen time. Despite this nagging issue that I had with Mud, it remains an efficient, lean, and suspenseful coming-of-age story elevated by what is the best performance of the year thus far.