Mud is the best film of the year.* I say this with an asterisk, of course, because I haven’t seen every film, and some of them may deserve some consideration in the discussion: Francis Ha, Stories We Tell, and Before Midnight, to name a few. And there are many more films to come that will probably get a lot more attention — look no further than the Cannes and Sundance lineups (or here). But I’m not convinced if there will be any that I’ll be in love with as much as Mud. Writer/director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) brings some much needed Southern realism and storytelling without the ever-present campiness that usually comes along with it these days.
Mud is a coming-of-age story (oh, how we love to throw that term around) that follows two southern teenage boys and the bond they form with Mud, an outlaw with no other name. Mud is trying to reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman he loves. The plot hinges on the boys’ (Ellis and Neckbone) willingness to help out this mysterious, almost mythical figure who seems to be full of folksy wisdom and bullshit interchangeably. Mud doesn’t have much to offer the boys for their help, but his magnetism keeps them interested. All Mud has of value is his shirt, his pistol, and, although he doesn’t admit to it: hope.
It’s hope that makes this a truly special film. It’s a story about life, love, and loss that retains a clear sense of optimism. This is most apparent in Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a fourteen-year-old boy who stands for what he believes, isn’t afraid to let his fists fly, and is unflinching in his belief in good and in love. He’s unscathed by the baggage that life often brings and his innocence and optimism is pure. He sees potential in everything, finding others’ trash to be something salvageable, with careful restoration. That trash is, of course, literal and figurative, and watching Ellis process life is at times painful, but it’s as genuine as you can imagine.
Ellis’s buddy, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is full of the same wonder, but is more pragmatic than the idealist and romantic in Ellis. Neckbone has his reservations about helping Mud, but he is dissuaded by the way that he looks up to Ellis. Neckbone often says that he doesn’t “give a shit” about things (he even wears a Fugazi t-shirt, a band that doesn’t license merchandise), but, despite his loose language, he’s a pretty good Arkansas kid. Neckbone’s uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) has been non-judgmental in his care and upbringing, which has allowed Neckbone the freedom to mostly think and learn on his own. Parenting discussions aside, this affords the film the ability to continue to explore through the vast curiosity and invincibility of the two boys.
Those who write or talk about film, including myself, have discussed the resurgence of Matthew McConaughey a lot in the past couple of years. He’s transformed into some other actor and somehow gone from one of my least favorite film stars to one of my favorites (he’s nearing Ryan Gosling territory for me). He is the man from nowhere in Mud, a sympathetic and thoughtful character that, at times, reminded me of the mystery and misinformation that surrounded To Kill a Mockingbird‘s Boo Radley. Mud has a whole lot more to say than Boo, and he is admittedly not innocent, but there is something primal that McConaughey taps into in Mud.
McConaughey is nearly flawless, but somehow doesn’t deliver the best performance in the film. That’s not a critique on him, but rather the highest of praise for young Tye Sheridan. Wow. If anyone deserves an Oscar nod, it’s this kid. Sheridan played the youngest of the children in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life in 2011 and he seems to be playing something similar to his role here in David Gordon Green’s upcoming film Joe. But it’s here that he’s grown wiser and stronger, and his performance will punch you in the gut.
Mud, thanks to Nichols, respects its story, its characters, and the natural world. I’ve heard that the film has received some comparisons to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and even the Southern stylings of Tennessee Williams, but I generally try to avoid reading about a film before I review it. The film takes care in showing what nature can provide and the dangers and evils that it can possess.
Mud is a film that deserves Oscar attention, but will most likely be swept aside during the buzz that will begin in the fall. Take note that in recent years there have only been a few films that have opened before the end of summer that have built enough of a following to make it to the Oscars: The Help (2012), Midnight in Paris (2012), and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2013). Of those three, only Octavia Spencer, from The Help, came away with an Oscar (Best Supporting Actress). It’s unfortunate but, if you’re reading this, you’ve probably realized by now that the best movies aren’t necessarily the ones recognized by The Academy. Either way, it’s a beautiful and honest film and a fantastic tale with great performances. Get to the Art Theater to see it; it’s only here until Friday.