Jeff Nichols’ Mud (2013) is a pitch-perfect movie about the myths that sustain us through childhood and the painful process of shedding innocence for independence. Framed around a story of genuine suspense and intrigue, it shares a quality with Spielberg’s best movies in which there’s the narrative and then there’s what the movie is about. Why do I invoke the name of a filmmaker who represents loud effects-driven movies when talking about this quiet, character-driven film? Because at its core, Mud is about the reunification of families, whether that be blood or otherwise, and that is the subject that Spielberg is most obsessed with. That Nichols can spin a good yarn as well furthers the connection. Here is a very good movie, one that is about a lot of things at once and one thing all the time.
It stars Tye Sheridan as Ellis, a 14-year-old in Arkansas who lives with his parents on a houseboat, parents who are considering a divorce. At the same time, he and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) have discovered an island on the river that contains a boat, ravaged by floods and storms, stuck high in a tree. This perfect treehouse is too good to be true as a collection of baked bean cans and Penthouse magazines reveal that the boat has a squatter. That squatter is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is hiding from the law for a murder he committed in defense of his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who he is hoping to meet up and escape the area with in the soon-to-be repaired boat. Beguiled by the romance and danger of this mystery fugitive, Ellis and Neckbone (though Neckbone more begrudgingly) agree to be Mud’s conduit to the world, getting him supplies and running messages to Juniper. The stakes get higher as the wealthy family of the man Mud murdered joins Nab Jones in the hunt for Mud, only they don’t want to see him arrested. Along the way, Ellis learns more than he would care to about love, loyalty and, certainly, snake bites.
The movie’s final act resolves the potboiler plot dramatically and grippingly, but what is transcendent is the treatment of Ellis’ maturation. The boy is torn between three father figures. There’s his actual dad, Senior (Ray McKinnon), who takes the failure of his marriage as an excuse to warn his son against the presumed dangers of women. Senior tells the impressionable Ellis that love is not to be trusted and that it can go in a flash, but, as adults in the audience, we can assume that Senior’s humorless and joyless selfishness might have had something to do with his marriage’s defeat.
Despite his pessimism, Senior represents adult practicality, opposite of Mud, who becomes a romantic Peter Pan-type for the boys; one of them, but with better faculties and the respect that comes with age. Mud spins mystical yarns about his past, his friends and his love for Juniper, which is the pure and undying love that Ellis imagines (though he never questions Mud’s purity, despite his being introduced as a man who considered Penthouse magazines essential survivalist items). Mud wears “lucky clothes,” the kind he claims will protect him better than bullets, and his goal is a chivalrous one, the exact type of chivalry that Ellis believes himself capable of (Ellis makes sure to cross the highway to sucker punch an older boy who was harassing his unrequited crush, echoing, on a smaller scale, the crime of valiance committed by Mud).
The third father figure is Galen (Michael Shannon), Neckbone’s uncle, who has a hand in raising both boys. Galen is as far away from Mud on the spectrum as Senior, but on the other side. Like Mud, he is in a state of arrested development, but unlike Mud, he isn’t driven by anything, and his thoughts on love, synonymous for him with sex, are hardly chivalrous. “You treat a woman like a princess, got it?” a spurned lover tells the boys as she leaves Galen’s trailer in a disgusted huff (this advice confirms Ellis’ idealized worldview, but Neckbone, having had more exposure to Galen, spends the lesson looking down the woman’s shirt). Galen, for his part, halfheartedly follows after her, “That’s uncalled for, baby. Hey, a lot of people are comfortable with that kind of thing in the bedroom; some people aren’t. I know that about you now, OK?”
It’s easy to see what draws Ellis to Mud: they share the same, dangerously untenable fealty to fairy-book romance. Mud sees himself as the protector of Juniper, prepared to whisk her off on an adventurous life of romance. Ellis, hearing Mud talk about her, attributes to her an angelic other-worldliness, the example of purity all women should strive for. He then inscribes his crush with that same kind of power (his earthly mother [Sarah Paulson], too often seen in the real but indelicate act of raising him, is not reserved for such honor and Ellis blames her for the divorce). When we meet Juniper, it doesn’t seem as if she has asked for any protection, nor is she spoiling for an adventurous life of romance. Similarly, Ellis’ crush, two years older (though the difference between 16 and 14 in the 16-year-old’s mind is an eternity), doesn’t feel that just because he would fight for her makes her romantically beholden to him. A conversation between Ellis and Juniper defines his outlook.
“Why you doin’ this?” she asks him.
“What do you mean?” he asks, as if the idea never occurred to him.
“Why you helpin’ us out?”
“Because ya’ll love each other.”
Juniper’s face (the conversation is over the phone) reveals her to be both emotionally moved by Ellis’ sweet naiveté and concerned and troubled by being held responsible to be the things she knows she cannot be.
Beyond its fascinating story and the subtle but powerful psychology going on underneath, Mud is a great-looking movie, photographed with grit and style by Adam Stone. The look of the movie and the perfect tone of Nichols’ script (folks refer to “the” Piggly-Wiggly but simply Wal-Mart) make for a world that is more lived in than most (notice Neckbone’s hand-me-down Fugazi T-shirt, the dirt-bag uniform). I can think of no one, besides perhaps Kelly Reichardt, who has emerged in the last five years making more consistently complete movies than Jeff Nichols.
The movie has drawn a lot of comparisons to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, which I think represents a misreading of both works. Just because it takes place in the South and on the river doesn’t mean that either Tom or Huck would ever be as wide-eyed and unworldly as Ellis proves to be. I found a better comparison with Great Expectations, as Ellis, like Pip, drives the plot at the service of others, not the other way around, as in Tom’s or Huck’s case. Mud then becomes Abel Magwitch, an invention of boyhood adventures, using Ellis for his own ends but ultimately facilitating his entrance into adulthood. (When Mud tells Ellis toward the end, “You’re a good man,” the force of that word, as opposed to “boy,” hits like a drum.) Dickens, who passed his gene for evocative names to Nichols (along with Neckbone, Juniper and Senior here, Nichols was the creator ofShotgun Stories  with its brothers Son, Boy and Kid, reflecting their father’s non-interest in them), can be evoked in Mud’s mixture of the past and future being tied up in the same bundle, a phenomenon that applies to much of the South’s opinion of itself. What makes the movie uniquely American is that while Dickens had a way of telling stories of deep-rooted destiny cleanly; in Nichols’ film, like the culture it represents, the idea of what’s gone before and the idea of what’s yet to go bleed together in an opaque cloud, not unlike mud.
It’s that obfuscation that makes Ellis’ potential choice between father figures so intriguing. After the ordeal, it’s inferred that, in Spielbergian fashion, Ellis’ parents are going to try to patch things up. Mud is out of Ellis’ life, which underlines the transient nature of romance not grounded in practicality, but allows Mud to remain idolized in Ellis’ memory. Galen, I would guess, will hang around, stunted but reasonably happy. It’s revealed that “Help Me, Rhonda” by The Beach Boys is Galen’s “doin’ it song,” and it’s used for comedic effect early in the movie. When it’s reprised over the final credits, it takes on a certain poignancy. Mud is about a boy’s struggle to find out what kind of man he’s going to be. He has a choice to believe that love is a lie, that love is everything, or that there will always be somebody else “to help me get her outta my heart.” Here’s hoping he creates a new choice that finds a lesson in all three.