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Posted March 16, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2013
 
 

Mud: Most Unfairly Overlooked Film of 2013

Mud, starring Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, and child-actor Tye Sheridan, was released in the spring of 2013 and received very good reviews. I missed it in its original release but was recently able to track it down on disc. (God bless Netflix.)

Mud isn’t great, but it is very, very good, certainly one of the best of 2013. Why was it overlooked by the Oscars? It surely was more deserving of a Best Picture nomination than Nebraska and Wolf of Wall Street! It was also better than Philomena and more complex than the enjoyable but very simple Dallas Buyers Club and Gravity. 

Many expressed surprise that The Butler received no Oscar nominations. Others remarked loudly about Robert Redford and Tom Hanks being snubbed. But no one said a word when Mud received no nominations. I hereby dub Mud the Most Unfairly Overlooked Film of 2013.

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Mud was written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, 2011) and represents a major step forward for him artistically. Take Shelter was unique and haunting, but also hesitant and sketchy, more like a short than a feature film.

Mud is vastly more developed and a major work of art. Mr. Nichols has arrived and is now one of the most important younger filmmakers in America. (He is in his mid-30’s.)

What makes Mud so good is its emotional depth and the amount of intelligent, thoughtful story content. It penetrates deeply into the emotional yearnings of its characters. In this age of colossal superficiality, with movies getting more and more like video games (wasn’t Gravity not much more than a very good video game?), Mud cuts gloriously against the grain, with thoughts and insights tucked into every nook and cranny. Maybe that’s why it didn’t get Oscar nominations — it has too much content!

The marketing material, including the poster, gives the impression that McConaughey plays the lead character. This is not true. The main character is a 14-year-old boy named Ellis, played very well by Tye Sheridan, whose first film appearance was in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.

Sheridan may turn into the next Ryan Gosling. What I love about his performance is that he doesn’t try to act like an adult. He perfectly embodies the hazy consciousness of an early adolescent. His feelings and thoughts are semi-formed. He doesn’t try to give them adult-like clarity or depth. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a child just beginning to have glimmers of adult consciousness and awareness. Thoughts are forming but are not fully formed yet.

Ellis, who lives in the middle of nowhere in rural Arkansas, becomes fascinated with a mysterious man (McConaughey) hiding out on a deserted island.

Part of the man’s mystery is that he never reveals his real name. He just has a nickname: Mud. The film never explains itself in obvious ways. Thus the viewer is free to interpret why the boy is so fascinated with this man and why he’s willing to take so many risks to visit him and help him. It’s clear that this mystery man could easily kill Ellis, bury the body, and nobody would know. This makes the boy’s visits to the island all the more nerve-racking, at least for the audience.

My view is that the boy is drawn first of all to the rugged nature of how Mud lives — in the wilderness on his own. A recurring subtext in the film is the disappearance of wilderness living from the American countryside.

As an example: at the start of the film, Ellis and his parents live in a wooden house that literally floats on the river, anchored to the shore with a few pieces of sturdy lumber. A houseboat, if you will. At the end of the film, the houseboat has been dismantled by the state government (presumably for not adhering to new environmental regulations), and Ellis and his mother are living in a brand-new condo development. River people no more.

Ellis loves being a river person and sees Mud as a kindred spirit, it seems to me. He’s even named after river mud, for goodness sake. But Ellis’s fascination goes beyond that. His interest really kicks in when he learns about Mud’s passionate, all-consuming long-term relationship with a woman named Juniper (Witherspoon). Mud is hiding out on the island because he is trying to find a way to get to Juniper, who is prevented from seeing him for some reason. Gradually, more and more is revealed about why. Without giving away the surprises, I’ll say that there is some crime in Mud’s background, and it involves Juniper.

Why does the relationship between Mud and Juniper interest Ellis so much? Again, this is free for the viewer to interpret. (One of the joys of seeing Mud with friends is that there is so much to discuss afterward.) Other plot lines demonstrate that Ellis’s romantic heart is taking flight. He is beginning to love girls the way Mud loves Juniper. My sense is that Ellis is inspired by how captivated Mud is by Juniper. He wants to bask in the glow of that relationship and help it endure.

In American films, adolescent boys are typically depicted as hyper-sexual, their interest in girls being all about body parts. What a joy to see a pubescent boy’s heart explored more than his libido. His attraction to girls surely has a sexual component, but the genital aspect is the least interesting part of that yearning. It is cinema gold to watch incipient feelings of love well up in Ellis and wash ineffably, inarticulately across his face.

Also relevant here is the marital discord between Ellis’s parents, who are beautifully played by Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon. The film doesn’t spend too much time on the parents, but every scene they are in is rich.

Ellis is acutely aware that his parents’ relationship is in trouble, but he has no idea why. He struggles to comprehend adult relationships. The fact that his parents are probably going to divorce affects him deeply. If he can’t find a way to keep his parents together, then at least he can help Mud and Juniper do so. When Juniper asks Ellis, “Why are you helping us?” his answer is, “Because you love each other.”

McKinnon does an exquisite job bringing Ellis’s father to life, a deeply traditional River Man at once ultra-hard and deeply soft. Toward the end of the film, love for his son positively gushes from his every pore, yet all the while he remains buttoned-up and traditionally masculine. It is astonishing that McKinnon’s performance didn’t attract more critical attention. One more reason to stand back in bewilderment at the fact that Mud was overlooked. Remember McKinnon’s name. He’s an actor to watch.

Adding further richness is a side character played by Sam Shepard. Without giving away story developments, I’ll just say that this character offers additional ways for the film to explore deep relationships between men and boys. Ditto for the small role played by Michael Shannon.

Finally, one can’t appreciate Mudwithout discussing its location shooting. I don’t know how Nichols did it, but he found a way to do all the filming in Arkansas, including some sequences along the Mississippi River. Thank heaven someone was willing to give Nichols the money to do this. It gives the film fantastic visual authenticity and a deep American-ness. You feel the river and the wilderness all around you.

Nichols wanted to do a study of the river people throughout states like Arkansas (where Nichols grew up, incidentally). What better way to enrich the study than to film the actual surroundings themselves. One feels as one watches Mud that one is out there on that tiny island — the loneliness, the quiet, the trees, the snakes.

One can count on one hand the number of American films shot in Arkansas or ignored states like it. What a joy that we have Nichols, the poet laureate of the middle South, to bring us glimpses of the quiet but deep lives of the people there and to show us the visual beauty of the flatlands, rivers, and Piggly Wigglys he knows so well.

One of the many things I found myself thinking about in the days after seeing Mud was the extraordinary history of the Mississippi River, teeming with life for countless millennia and cutting through the heart of America, nurturing the development of all the states from Minnesota to Louisiana. One could argue that without the Mississippi, America never would have developed west of the Appalachians. Thank you, Jeff Nichols, for helping me see this better and bringing it into the unique American artistic viewpoint you are developing.


William Dunmyer

 
William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.