I don't know why, but, every time I see people wandering around on an
island, all disheveled and dirty, I immediately think of ABC's Lost.
When writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) introduces us to the two prepubescent boys at the center of his coming-of-age tale, they aren't all that likeable. From the dialogue, they're already objectifying women, talking about female body parts when it's obvious they wouldn't know what to do with them. They're cursing with reckless abandon and they don't have much respect for other life forms.
Newcomer Jacob Lofland plays Neckbone, a tough little cracker who hangs out with his friend on the summer days in Arkansas and spends time clamming with his uncle Galen, played by Michael Shannon (Take Shelter), who sits under water with a self-made diving helmet. When he's not waiting for Galen to surface, Neckbone is wearing a "Fugazi" T-shirt and he's by the side of his best friend, Ellis, played by Tye Sheridan who reminds me of a young Brad Renfro from The Client (1994).
Both Ellis and Neckbone sail to an island where there's a boat in a tree and a man nicknamed Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, living in it. One can imagine that a tornado probably placed the boat atop the branches, but no explanation is given or can be inferred as to how Mud himself got there in the first place. It takes Ellis and Neckbone a while and a motor boat to get to the island in the middle of the Mississippi River, but there's no indication as to how Mud did it.
Mud uses Ellis and Neckbone as his couriers or postmen basically, but at first it's not clear why they would. Ellis, particularly, seems drawn to Mud like a moth to a flame. Even before the bombshell his parents drop and even before the stakes of Mud's romantic future are established, Ellis is attracted to Mud inexplicably.
Ellis seems to have a hero complex within him. When he sees a teenage girl at odds with an elder boy, Ellis feels the need to intervene and in effect defend the girl and in his mind help her. Whatever it is inside Ellis, he needs to help people and then oddly enough falls in love with those he seeks to rescue. He then justifies any further actions with the reasoning that he's doing it for love, even if it means hurting people, even if it means committing a crime.
The problem is that Ellis might not know what love is. His parents, Senior and Mary Lee, played respectively by Roy McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, are no great example. The men who surround Ellis emanate a general sense of misogyny. Men are always mistreating or bad talking women over and over. If that's an echo of the area, then Nichols certainly reverberates it.
Things become muddled when Nichols decides to cap his film with a violent shootout, and he expects us to follow one side clearly over the other side. He paints the other side in an odd light or else a darker light with odd religious undertones that are probably trying to portray the other side in a way that makes it out to be a hypocrite or just plain evil. Nichols then has that other side go to ridiculous extremes at the end, and I didn't get why.
Reese Witherspoon plays an ex-girlfriend to Mud named Juniper and I get the point of her character or rather what function she serves in the narrative. Her presence there though never made sense.
A lot of people have been talking up Matthew McConaughey and his recent rash of film roles. McConaughey had become a joke and the punch line was something to the effect of the dumb romantic comedies he had done starting in the 2000s. Yet, his role in The Lincoln Lawyer (2011), which harkened back to his powerful performance in A Time to Kill (1996), signaled a change that would make McConaughey no longer a joke. Last year saw the release of four films, all featuring or starring McConaughey, including Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike and The Paperboy. Now with Jeff Nichols' Mud, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, people are really calling for McConaughey to get an Oscar nomination, but I'm not ready to jump on that bandwagon.
If I'm ready to jump on any bandwagon, it's the child actor bandwagon. Last year was notable for the growing love for not only Matthew McConaughey and Channing Tatum but also for the growing love of child actors being seen again as powerful rivals to even the eldest of Academy Award nominees. This was certainly true of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. It was also true of Thomas Doret in The Kid With a Bike, Logan Lerman in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi and Jared Gilman in Moonrise Kingdom.
Also add to the child actor bandwagon Tye Sheridan whose debut was in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life (2011). Sheridan's performance is superb here. It's too bad that I didn't go for the True Grit (2010) ending.
Four Stars out of Five.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language and smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 10 mins.