'Mud' is a great story, but not a particularly great film.
Dripping in regional specificity and broad metaphor, Jeff Nichols' new film feels more like a big, fat American novel you get assigned in 10th grade than the follow-up to 'Take Shelter.' That earlier film's ominous tone and psychological portraiture is traded-in for large, gestural story beats that itch to be broken down and discussed for their symbolic meaning. When you are done explaining just what Boo Radley represented, then you can sink your teeth into Joe Don Baker's character "King."
There are worse crimes, though, than being grand, and 'Mud''s coming of age tale certainly is that. Young Tye Sheridan plays Ellis, a good kid living "on the river" in Arkansas with an underachieving but caring father and a mother looking for change. He and his buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) discover a boat stuck in a tree on an island, but they also discover a curious dude living there. It is Matthew McConaughey, charismatic as ever, but this time with a snake tattoo and a pistol stuck in the back of his jeans.
His name is Mud and we quickly learn that he is on the run from the law for gunning down a man who was abusing the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon.) Ellis, who romanticizes "pure love" beyond the point of reality, dedicates himself to helping Mud. Down this path lies some heartbreak, some danger and a whole bunch of life lessons.
At 130 minutes 'Mud' leisurely spends time with each of the extended players, including Ellis' would-be girlfriend, the strange old neighbor (Sam Shepard) and Neckbone's uncle played by Michael Shannon. With each visitation a little of Ellis' innocence is lost, so much so that the 14 year old is almost ready to give up on human relationships. It is up to Mud, a murderer with a posse after him, to restore the kid's faith in the world.
The characters and setting in the film are absolutely fantastic, but there are some aspects are simply too on-the-nose to let slide. I think I remember learning in my dramatic writing class that you can't showcase a slimy pit of venomous snakes in the first act without them chomping on your lead character in the third. Also, if someone is evil, they have to wear a slick suit and a chain bracelet, even if they are in the middle of the deadest town in the least interesting part of the flyover, where a trip to the Golden Corral's buffet is the highlight in fine dining.
'Mud' certainly looks nice. There are plenty of magic hour moments and McConaughey is shirtless a lot of the time. But there isn't anything resembling pizzaz. The closest 'Mud' gets to being aesthetically playful is leaving you guessing at first if it takes place now or in the the late 1980s. The cars and clothing are all old, but one shot has a prominently placed calendar that makes its current setting clear. I wouldn't look for too much meaning here - it's quite possible that Arkansas river folk don't use iPhones.
It's hard to know how mainstream audiences will take to 'Mud.' Maybe it will tap into the Heartland audience that always feels overlooked by elitist Hollywood. Or maybe they'll be bored by a film that leaves the crime story on the fringes and focuses mainly on a child's growth. Either way, I'll give 'Mud' a "recommend" if only for its remarkable feat of feeling like an adaptation of a classic novel that doesn't actually exist.
'Mud 'premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.