Jeff Nichols's last film, Take Shelter, tripped itself up over genre. It seemed like a film that wanted to embrace genre, all the while distancing itself from it. His new film, Mud (2013), is more inclined to give itself over to genre, but its genre--kinda sorta film noir--is much more friendly to filmmakers with artier impulses. It's a better film in spite of being more in tune with its pulp fiction literary forebearers. It's also a portrait of the collapsing American civilization and a gentle coming of age story. It mostly integrates all of this into a pretty good movie.
The plot follows Ellis and Neckbone, two boys who live on the Mississippi. Neckbone has discovered a wrecked boat in a tree on an island in the middle of the river, deposited there by a flood, perhaps. The boys see in this boat a secret hideaway, the coolest treehouse in the world. Unfortunately, it's inhabited by Mud, who turns out to be an escaped convict, but a relatively benign one. Mud enlists the boys' help in bringing the boat out of the tree so that he can fix it up and escape the dragnet that's looking for him. Ellis, in particular, is enthralled by Mud's tale of true love, in which his lover waits for him. The reality is somewhat different. Mud's lady love, Juniper, is faithless, and the man Mud killed in her defense had dangerous kin who hope to find him before the police. Meanwhile, Ellis's parents are in the process of splitting up and he's on the cusp of losing his home. To complicate things even more, he's fallen for a girl. Neckbone, for his part, lives with his uncle, who gives them both tips on romancing women (one of his conquests urges them both to ignore him). All the while, they scavenge for parts for Mud's boat, while making painful discoveries about the human heart...
This is a film that looks lived-in. Mostly filmed on location in Arkansas, it has an open eye toward what rural, red-state America actually looks like. It mostly eschews picturesque locations in favor of grocery stores, run-down motels, houseboats, junkyards, trailer parks, and dilapidated industrial wreckage. The people in this film are poor and they world they live in reflects this. The kids in this movie have limited prospects, and the movie reflects this, too. This is very much a weary portrait of late capitalism and America in decline. This is a stark contrast to the dogged optimism that motivates Ellis through the entire movie. He doesn't know that failure is even an option when he agrees to help Mud or tries to woo May Pearl. But, of course, failure teaches hard lessons, and Ellis absorbs these as best he can. He believes in the power of true love, but the world disappoints him.
This film's literary roots run deep. They find their way to Tom and Huck, as any movie about two teen boys living on the Mississippi are apt to do, but they find their way, too, to The Night of the Hunter and Springsteen's The River (a music cue it chooses not to include, I should mention). It reminds me a bit of the kinds of action thrillers John D. McDonald wrote in the 1960s and 70s, too, with its mysterious supporting characters and apocalyptic shootout at the end. That one character just happens to be a sniper with experience with "wet work" is convenient to the plot and tips the filmmakers' hand when it comes to building a genre narrative.
This has good actors throughout. Matthew McConaughey continues a late career renaissance here as the title character. He's likeable and charismatic, but with an undercurrent of danger. It's a terrific performance. Reese Witherspoon is the other big name in the cast, but she's under-used as a character who is more symbolic than anything. It's kind of fun seeing Michael Shannon play a goofball lothario uncle rather than the twitchy lunatics he's been specializing in lately. This is a big change from his last work for Jeff Nichols in Take Shelter. The real stars are Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as our teen heroes, though. The movie asks them to hold the screen for its entire running time and they're both up to it: both of them give performances that are unforced and natural. The movie hinges on their believability, and they're more than up to the challenge. They're really good.
Mud is a pretty good movie, but for all the good qualities it surely does possess, I'm soured a little by its unreflected misogyny. All of the female characters in the film: Ellis's mother, Juniper, May Pearl, all of them, are shown as being nothing but trouble for their men. Worse, they're shown to be manipulative and unfaithful even in the face of, say, Mud's simpleminded devotion or Ellis's sincerity. This is a film where women are deceiving jezebels and nothing more. While I realize that this isn't a movie about women--indeed, it plays to certain male paranoias and power fantasies in the end--it's still disappointing.