The Man Called Mud
Matthew McConaughey's Southern Gothic
Mud is a little bit Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer—a boy’s tale on a Southern river, a story of boys finding their way amidst the mysterious world of adults. The protagonists are a pair of 14-year-olds, the sensitive Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and the more cynical, Fugazi T-shirt-wearing Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Exploring a wooded island in the stream, they discover a surreal sight, an intact cabin cruiser wedged in the branches of a great tree, lifted there in a flood. Ellis and Neckbone decide to make it their clubhouse, but they find the boat is home to a slightly sinister man who answers to the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Out now on DVD, Mud is directed by Jeff Nichols, a promising filmmaker who debuted in 2011 with a Twilight Zone from the heartland story, Take Shelter. Mud is likewise a psychological study but in the key of Southern gothic, perhaps more Flannery O’Connor than Mark Twain. Living half in the mystic, Mud sees portents in every tree branch and fierce powers at war in this world—good and evil, bad luck and good. And he casts a deep shadow of danger. Mud admits to being homeless, even a hobo, but bristles at the charge of being a bum. “I’ll teach you something about respect your daddy never did,” he warns the boys against calling him that again.
Neckbone doesn’t have a daddy and is looked after by his uncle, who ekes a living from the river by diving for shellfish. Ellis’ parents are in a fraying marriage; his daddy runs a frozen fish business from coolers in the back of a pickup. “I work you hard because life is work,” he tells Ellis, summing up his grim ethic. Their town is low slung and made of clapboard and rust. But the land beyond is beautiful, a fitting habitation for Mud, who seems as much an elemental force of nature as a man. His reclusive stepfather even claims he discovered him as a boy wandering in the woods.
Mud tells Ellis and Neckbone that he’s awaiting the arrival of his life’s love, the girl with the nightingales tattooed on her hands, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He doesn’t mention that the state troopers are waiting for him to surface, spreading his picture all over town; dark, powerful forces that won’t abide by the niceties of the law also pursue him.
Mud is as leisurely as a muggy summer day—with a thunderstorm building in the distance. The characters speak in the stark vernacular poetry of the South. he boys decide to help Mud lower the boat from the tree branches and escape down river to the elusive freedom of the open sea. The sense of place is authentic and the quandaries posed by love are real. Perhaps Ellis’ dad is correct: life is hard work, especially if you’re trying to get it right.