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Through the vagaries of 21st century film distribution, I happened to see Mud at one of Chicago's god-forsaken multiplexes.  This occurred after the heavy bombardment in Dolby Digital sound of coming attractions for the likes of Iron Man 3 and Pacific Rim practically shook the bones and before the more genteel trailers for Roadside Attractions - the company distributing Mud - followed:  a documentary from Sarah Polley; Joss Whedon's update of Much Ado About Nothing.

With writer/director Jeff Nichol's Mud, we're dealing with something far more subtle than most of those thundering mainstream films.  And yet, there's no lack of story with Mud.  Over the course of his three features, Mr. Nichols has established himself as someone who seems more of a skilled writer that directs than a director who just insists on filming his own stories.  Not a bad thing at all.  So Mud is ground in specifics of character and place as any good writer would do.  But Nichols has applied these distinct touches to a story that has timeless themes:  coming of age, first love, the loss of innocence, a yearning for a home lost or threatened.

Mud's story of a boy helping a man on the run from the law also seems somehow timeless, even a bit archetypal or mythic.  Perhaps that's simply because there is at least some resemblance in plot between Mud and Dickens' Great Expectations, so commonly known and absorbed that, like several of the English writer's works, it would seem to have found the permanence of  myth in the English speaking (and reading) world.  Closer to home and Mud's setting, there is also the obvious influence of Mark Twain, a writer admired by Nichols, whose stories replete with river lore, including Tom Sawyer, Mud's writer had in mind while long nurturing the  idea for his current film.

We are immediately immersed in both place and time as Mud begins.  The place is southern Arkansas, along the Mississippi River.  The time is more a matter of lifespan than calendar, focusing its story in both the pains and mysteries of adolescence and the regrets of middle life.  As for when in a broader sense the story takes place, that's a little harder to peg by the usual gauge of vehicles, appliances or dress, but a refrigerator calendar on the riverboat house of young Ellis (Tye Sheridan), reveals the setting to be the relative present day.

Like many a good storyteller, Jeff Nicols reveals much more than he blatantly spells out.  Just as there are vague tensions at work on that houseboat in which Ellis lives, there's a bit of dread hanging over a morning journey he takes with his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland).  So too in the frank, sometimes coarse language of the two boys, there's something a little rough, a little forbidding, whether they're talking about their river journey or the parts of the female anatomy that so preoccupy adolescent boys (and older ones).  But that roughness is largely a matter of the bluff typical of young men.  There's often more sensitivity than appearances might suggest.  And so it is with Ellis and Neckbone.

Tye Sheridan has some acting experience, having played one of the sons in Terence Malick's Tree of Life.  Arkansas native Jacob Lofland won the role of Neckbone where upwards of 2,000 boys were tried out.  Apparently, Nichols wanted to cast the roles with boys who could already ride dirt bikes and pilot boats.  That ease is  just one element in the natural and involving performances that the young men give.

If words like mythic or archetypal are too strong in speaking of Mud, there is at least something elemental at play, particularly in the early scenes in which Ellis and Neckbone skim along the surface of the river (apparently a tributary) out toward the more open water of the Mississippi.  Such boys might regularly employ a certain bravado at times as they try to navigate their social world, but their relationship with each other is honest enough that they can openly acknowledge some fear at approaching the expanse of the river and the (what they believe to be) the uninhabited island in its midst.  The focus of their quest is a boat suspended high above ground in a tree's branches on the island, apparently the work of a last big flood of the river.  I don't imagine it was in any way an inspiration, but the image of the boys drawn by the incongruity of a boat suspended in the middle of a forest (and river), reminded me of another great Southern story, Other Voices, Other Rooms, Truman Capote's first novel in which a mule is found hanging in an abandoned hotel in the middle of a swamp.  

The boys are excited to claim the suspended and long-abandoned boat as their own, sort of the ultimate tree house.  Mud is a film that gets its details right, one of which is the physical state of the incongruously-moored craft.  This is true both in decay of the hull and equipment on board, as well as the detritus strewn about the interior.  It looks for all the world like a boat thus long and strangely dry-docked.  Unfortunately, among the objects that fascinate boys is something of more recent placement:  a plastic shopping bag which contains a loaf of bread and some other food.  The slight dread lurking over the boys' journey is made manifest both with that discovery and footprints found near their boat.  And then they are made aware of the somewhat wild figure of Mud, standing not far away on the beach, fishing reel in hand.

With Mud, the Matthew McConaughey renaissance continues.  Some of his best work, in addition to the titular fugitive here, has come in recent years with strong roles in Killer Joe (he was there the best thing in a very dubious film), Bernie and even Tropic Thunder.  This not to mention The Paperboy and Magic Mike, which I have not seen.  I don't know that we can yet say that Mr. McConaughey is a character actor, nor do I imagine he would be ready to accept the label.  Here, he's somewhere between movie star and character actor, something of a beautiful ruin.  In Mud, his appearance approaches the leonine with those prominent high cheeks, the nose pressed close to the face, the fairly wild mane of greasy curls.

The revealing of Mud's character - in the most thorough sense of that word - happens gradually through Mr. Nichols story.  At first, the boys seem rightfully alarmed by the man, dirty, on his own, full of strange eloquence.  Not to mention the pistol visible above the back of his jeans.  Mud tells the boys that he has claimed the suspended boat has his own, but will grant them possession if they bring him food.  Neckbone thinks both the idea and its source are crazy, but Ellis, questing after something he can't define, agrees to help the fugitive. 

We, like the boys, come to find out that Mud is being pursued by a well-to-do Texas family.  This for the killing of one of it's scions, after he did violence to the love of Mud's life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).  Our southern Quixote, forever trying to protect and love his Dulcinea, hopes to rendezvous with her and try yet again to make their hopeless love work.  But the family has Juniper's hotel staked out, bribes in place all over town and plenty of guns at the ready.  The patriarch of this clan (Joe Don Baker) bears a name redolent of southern lore and snakes:  King.  Even worse, as Mud warns the boys, with some justification it would seem, the avenging father is "the devil himself."  

Baker, not seen on screen in several years, is an ace casting choice as King, his once imposing bulk a bit withered by the decades, fitting to the sulphrous but aging patriarch involving his family in an internecine struggle that he seems to regard as some sort of  holy war (at his first motel room meeting with the seedy, motley collection of hired guns on hand to pursue Mud, he has them join hands in prayer).  

Lending Mud even more gravity are the likes of Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon and Ray McKinnon.  Shephard, looking very much the old coot with his nearly white hair shaped into a severe buzz cut, plays Tom Blankenship, former military sharp shooter and father figure to the self-defeating Mud.  Blankenship's proficiency with a rifle will prove invaluable when the forces of King and his men finally descend on Mud.  Michael Shannon, who starred in Nichol's first two features, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, plays another father figure of sorts, Galen, uncle and guardian to Neckbone.  Mr. McKinnon is a man of many talents, a writer and director in his own right.  He did both for his 2005 feature Chrystal, while he and his late wife Lisa Blount (who starred in Crystal), won the 2001 Academy Award for their live action short, The Accountant.  McKinnon also has a character actor's face, particularly when its long features are made more severe within some growth of beard, as is the case in Mud.  

If there's any common thread through Jeff Nichol's three feature films, beyond his obvious feeling for Americans who are not exactly living large, it is of men who struggle to control themselves and their circumstances.  McKinnon, credited simply as Senior in Mud, is the father to Ellis.  He tries to eke out a living from the river at a time when that is increasingly difficult to do.  His situation is made more tenuous by the growing rift in his marriage and the fact that the family's houseboat is in his wife Mary Lee's (Sarah Paulson) name.  If they divorce and Mary Lee yield's possession of the house, it will be taken by the government and removed.

The lack of affection in his parents relationship seems one of the things driving Ellis to help Mud, struck by the extremes to which the outsider has gone to pursue and protect the woman that he loves.  And while Ellis tries help that forever doomed relationship along, placing himself in harm's way and even afoul of the law, he experiences his own first, abortive romance.  This an older girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who's impressed enough with Ellis throwing a punch at a senior boy to protect her that she grants Ellis a first date.  And when that date goes well, when boy and girl kiss, it means they're a couple and in love, right?  This, of course, depends a great deal on perspective, whether that of the eager, innocent freshman or the jaded upperclassman.

Mr. Nichols apparently had his own high school heartbreak in mind in writing of Ellis' first painful attempt at young love.  It's one of several storylines that the writer/director deftly weaves into the overall narrative of Mud.  For all its attachment to something large and timeless in terms of story and theme, very little in Mud seems forced because Nichols so often gets the details of place, circumstance and dialog right.  One can certainly quibble with the manner, both how and where, the inevitable confrontation between Mud and the the small army pursuing him finally takes place.  But that unlikely flare-up of violence is gracefully enveloped in both the larger and smaller pockets of the story.  Much more typical of Nichols' good work in Mud is the role of Senior.  Ellis' father is revealed amid a mix of anger, bitterness, as well as tenderness, on the strength of Jeff Nichols' writing and Ray Mckinnon's performance.  Typical of the best acting, McKinnon's work seems effortless and transparent - more, not less powerful for it.  You believe that if you could find the particular small town in Arkansas, you might well encounter a pained, proud man like Senior.  And so you probably could.  

If not another storyline, there is an air of elegy that runs through Mud.  Beyond the obvious sadness of couples approaching middle age without much to show for their efforts, there is the more pervasive mourning for a way of life disappearing, the ability to find a livelihood on the river.  Twice we see Ellis being driven through the town in his father's pickup truck, looking with apparent wistfulness across the lot of a marine dealership and beyond it to a rust covered old mill or factory building.  It seems a couple of generations of what the town is, was, used to be.  All fading in their way, as such towns seem to slide down some invisible, inexorable grade from producing things to only consuming them.  One of the strengths of Nichols' storytelling is that such points, if made at all, are brief and matter of fact.  Through each of his three features we see people  who are not many paychecks or much of a bank account removed from poverty, but the writer/director knows that such conditions are simple facts of life for many people, and not the only facts that define them.

Mud has more than a bit in common with Debra Granik's Winter's Bone (2010).  Both are set in Arkansas of the present day, both a bit timeless and contemporary at the same time.  Winter's Bone was not Jennifer Lawrence's first professional role, but certainly served as her coming out party.  The same can be said for Tye Sheridan, perhaps even more so.  The character of Mud is obviously the catalyst of the film, but it is Ellis   who serves as the heart of the story, the eyes through which we usually see.  Tye Sheridan is every bit as sure as the formidable actors around him.

Despite the disappointments and disillusionment faced by Ellis, there would seem to be a good bit of resilience in his young heart as he faces his future.  Those of us with more experience -both "real life" and the barrage of thunderously-forgettable make believe - might take a more pessimistic view.  But at least in Jeff Nichols' Mud there is sound reason to feel encouraged, not only for American film, but for the renewal of a rich tradition of storytelling in this country.  Mud, like Mr. Nichols' previous features, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, are films to seek out.



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