The work that "Mud" closely resembles is Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; which, in of itself, isn't that much of a kid's book. Twain's unyielding tendency for the sardonic and unflinching dark humor aren't exactly the best material for a children's novel—yet the protagonist is a child. For children see things differently than adults and using that perspective, Twain was able to convey his points. The same goes for "Mud"—a young boy is the main character who finds himself in adult situations.
"Mud' is a story that is about a loss of innocence, not in the Huck Finn sense though. The innocence of youth has already been lost when the movie opens, the two boys that we see are both into puberty—well aware of how unfair the world is. But Ellis, the main character, has yet to experience any of this unfairness to its fullest potential. He's been sheltered from it all, and one chance meeting brings it all down, crashing on his head.
Ellis's best friend is named Neckbone, a lovely Southern nickname that sticks with the character. These two enjoy going off and exploring and they hear about a boat that is stuck in a tree on a deserted island in the middle of the river that they live on. The last time that the river flooded, it dropped the boat in the tree, and it's been there ever since.
The opening scene is the exploration of the boat and the finding of the title character, Mud.
Mud is a man who lives on the island where the boat is. He's homeless and a hobo, but he demands not to be called a bum. This man is superstitious, he has nails in the shape of a cross on the bottom of his boot and he's obsessed with not disturbing the ghosts of the past. Perhaps it's because he's running from his past. Ellie and Neckbone, on first encounter, don't want to get too involved with this strange man.
Mud asks them for food, and his request lays heavily on Ellis, who eventually caves in to his conscience and brings the strange man some food.
A relationship forms between the two of them and they both share secrets.
Set on the banks of a river in Arkansas, "Mud" is distantly reminiscent to "Beasts of the Southern Wild"—simply for the youth of the protagonist and the physical setting of the story.
"Mud" is great because it asks so many questions that get the viewer thinking: What defines manhood and by that definition, what makes a man good? Is it right to break the law?
The cruelty of the world starts to weigh down on Ellis, and it's through his eyes that we can recall the first time that we knew that our world wasn't perfect.
Ellis is raised in a "typical" Southern home. He has to "yes, sir" and "yes, ma'am" even when he knows he's right. Respect is drilled into him and he expects everyone to have a certain level of respect for one another—which we all know that they don't.
Love is another foreign object that Ellis comes in contact with. The nature of love is described to him and, like most, I don't think that he ever really understands it.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mud and he's been getting all the praise from the movie, rightly so—it's the best performance of his career. But the real praise should go to Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as Ellis and Neckbone, because they are the reason that the story works. Sheridan in particular is outstanding.
The river itself plays a large part in the movie, it is home to many of the characters, and yet some shots make it seem so vast and lonely. The river can hold secrets and supply materials for people's living, and it can also flood and kill. The natural world is unpredictable, like the circumstances that Ellis encounters.
This is writer/director Jeff Nichols's third feature and he brings a very smart drama/thriller to the screen. The script allows the viewer to stay one step ahead of Ellis and yet not lose interest in his actions. We know what's around the corner which is more impactful when Ellis finds out.
Nichols doesn't try to define humanity because he would be pretentious to do so. Instead he invents Ellis, the character that symbolizes one act that changed our lives. Ellis is a turning point.
"Mud" is just about flawless, it's not for tiny reasons that don't add up to much.
The performances are all great (a very good job done by Reese Witherspoon is seen in "Mud") and the story itself is compelling.
Nichols reminds us that you don't have to have explosive special effects and high production values to make a great movie.
Score: 3 and a half stars out of 4