By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)
The modern world offers so many technological advancements and conveniences that it’s easy to get caught up with what’s right in front of you and become oblivious to everything around you. These days, many fourteen-year olds spend an inordinate amount of time with their faces in their phones, constantly texting, Snapchatting and Instagramming. Mud is set in the present, but it transports you to a place where the youth is enchanted by nature rather than technology. It is set in the rustic backwoods of Arkansas and was partially filmed outside of my dad’s hometown, Eudora, AR. The unique economically poor, but ecologically rich setting is a reminder that not everyone lives the same way – and that this has it advantages and disadvantages. However, the film is about much more than the merits of simplicity and the beauty of nature. Mud, at its core, is a compelling coming of age tale about the pains of growing up as the idyllic innocence of adolescence collides with the tumultuous realities of adulthood. And, it’s better than any of the bombastic blockbusters that you’ll see this summer.
Mud is headlined by big name Hollywood veterans, Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, but the kids are the real stars. Tye Sheridan, previously featured in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, plays an adventurous and tortured fourteen-year old named Ellis. Ellis lives in a houseboat on the Mississippi River where he and his best friend spend the majority of his time. His best friend, Neckbone, played admirably by newcomer Jacob Lofland, is a blunt youngster who looks up to Ellis.
At the beginning of the film, Ellis and Neckbone take their modest jon boat out to a small island on the river to claim a larger boat that is stuck high in a tree, only to discover that someone is already living in it. Before the spooked boys leave the island, they meet the mysterious man whom they believe has stolen their boat. The man (Matthew McConaughey) says his name is Mud and is in need of some help. The boys become intrigued and work out a deal with him.
Eventually, they learn that Mud is a fugitive in hiding; hiding from both the authorities and other dangerous figures that are searching the countryside for him. The humorously unsubtle Neckbone is initially weary of helping a fugitive, but Ellis is drawn in by a love story Mud tells. Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper, the object of Mud’s affections. According to Mud, any crimes that he’s committed have been in the name of love. Once he fixes the boat, he plans to reunite with Juniper and flee to the Gulf of Mexico. Ellis and Neckbone gradually become infatuated with Mud and his mission, but they don’t know how dangerous their tasks can become.
The film’s first half moves at its own pace. It spends a lot of time establishing the characters and an equal amount of time characterizing the setting. You get a clear sense of what Ellis’ relationship with his parents is like, as well as a few peaks into Neckbone’s home life. You also get to see how the boys fit in with other kids their age and watch the self-aware, but not very experienced Ellis grapple with morality while trying to live up to the expectations of masculinity. However, once the bad guys are introduced, the film noticeably picks up the pace. The tension steadily ratchets up as Mud gets closer to his escape and the bad guys, led by Michael Shannon, close in on hm. A sense of dread fills every scene in which the boys stick their neck out for their enigmatic friend. The last act transitions into a nerve-rackingly unpredictable thriller — you’ll have no idea if it’s going to warm your heart or break it, or maybe even both.
Much has been made of McConaughey’s career renaissance as of late. If you haven’t heard, the past few years the actor has shied away from cheap romantic comedies and has taken more serious, character-driven roles. Mud is a terrific continuation of this trend, Ostensibly, McConaughey is playing the same cliché southern charmer with a Texas drawl and a rugged appearance. But over time, McConaughey reveals Mud to be a delightfully complex character. McConaughey’s portrayal is simultaneously charismatic and haunting.
Overall, Mud is a very measured film. Although some of the incidents that occur down the stretch are a little contrived, the film’s nature allows you to eagerly suspend your disbelief. It has a magical feel that is nicely juxtaposed by the very real subject matter on the periphery of the main action. It feels a little bit like a fairy tale, but not too much. There is a healthy dose of nostalgia, but it doesn’t go overboard. It’s an intoxicating mixed cocktail of adventure, romance, humor and suspense. And if you aren’t enticed by those things, then perhaps you’ll be drawn in by the universal themes of figuring out love, growing up and adapting to change. With just a $10 million budget, Mud is a small film that deserves a big audience.
Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College Fix, The Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday.