Since making his debut as a writer and director in 2007 with the warmly received Shotgun Stories, and following it up with festival darling Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols has become a powerful voice within the independent film world. It’s with Mud though that Nichols has officially arrived, delivering an exceptional coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of rural Arkansas.
Teenagers Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) come across a drifter named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) when investigating a stranded motorboat on an abandoned island. Captivated by this man’s determination to reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his own true love, the boys agree to help him out. That is, however, until Mud’s murky past rears its ugly head.
Told exclusively through an adolescent’s untainted, romantic perspective, Mud adopts a slow, almost dream-like pace as the narrative unravels. This not only helps to hook and bait the audience, but also to reflect the emotional adventure Ellis experiences over the course of the film – one that forces him to mature and see the world for what it really is, warts and all.
Nichols exercises several unexpected twists and turns throughout that propels the film into surprising directions. It’s the themes at its heart that are the most satisfying elements of Mud though, not least that of love. Ellis’ stance on love transforms from starry-eyed optimism to practical realism as he witnesses his parents’ marriage collapse and Juniper abandon her relationship with Mud.
This is all reflected through Adam Stone’s down-to-earth cinematography and a wonderfully moody, contemplative score orchestrated by David Wingo. The performances, too, are hugely impressive, with Sheridan and McConaughey making the biggest impression. They have a profound effect on one another’s lives and attitudes, and the chemistry between the two actors reinforces that.
It all amount to a coming-of-age drama that, while captivating with its raw intensity, retains a refreshing airiness thanks to Nichols’ restrained direction and the way it wears its heart on its sleeve. As demanding and bleak as it may be at times, the reward and impression of hope that comes at the end makes the investment all the sometimes difficult investment all the more worth it.