Caveats: Mud (2012; dir. Jeff Nichols) makes some unwelcome compromises. As dark as it is, it ends in a way that allows us too much satisfaction--the visceral pleasure of watching the bad guys blown away, the happy discovery by Ellis that even though his parents’ separation may be permanent they still love him (sentimental). Then of course there is the final revelation that Mud himself has survived. The defeat of the Bad Guys in particular, a gang of hapless and ineffectual thugs hired to kill Mud by the father of a man he killed out of jealousy is unlikely. They are heavily armed. They know exactly where Mud is. They blast repeatedly through the flimsy walls of the house where Ellis and his family live and no one (no one!) is hit. Mud himself suffers injury only after diving into the water. Conversely, all the gang members are shot to death by Mud or Ellis’s father or the old man across the river (reputed to have been a military assassin or sniper) with his high-power long distance sniper’s rifle. It’s all just improbable. And the final cliché—that of the ne’er do well Mud who finally asserts moral and physical heroism—well, it’s too predictable.
In the film’s larger context these reservations are minor. Characters are the film’s strength, along with the Arkansas background, which changes back and forth between the seediness of a languishing small town, the riverbank life of fishermen still trying to earn a living by their catch, and the island where much of the film takes place. Change infiltrates everything. Ellis and his friend Neckbone are both entering adolescence and puberty. Ellis is already attracted to older girls and shows signs of being a future ladies’ man. His parents’ marriage is deteriorating. People who live in rickety shacks and trailers along the river are gradually moving to town. We find here the same static small town atmosphere evident in Nichol’s first two films, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011). The atmosphere can be suffocating, closed in, and you sense that characters want to escape even if they’re not aware of it themselves.
As a young adolescent male Ellis is a passionate romantic. He can’t understand why his parents would drift apart--because they are supposed to love each other. He takes up the cause of Mud and his girlfriend because they are “in love.” He’s unaware of complexities, and part of the poignancy of the film is the outer world of adult reality that the boys know little about. Things are going on, problems being worked out, issues addressed—all beyond their ken. Thus it’s difficult for Ellis to understand his parents’ breakup, or why Mud and Juniper, both of whom have put each other through the wringer for years, might need to part ways despite their love for each other. In particular, it’s Mud who the boys understand and connect with on one level and who on another level they don’t understand at all. (I’m tempted to draw a connection with What Maisie Knew (2012) but will refrain (I haven’t seen it yet); however, the child characters of Faulkner’s early novels, especially The Sound and the Fury and As I Lay Dying do come to mind).
Matthew McConaughey as Mud is as good as he’s ever been—certainly better than the Southern Bible-thumping preacher he parodies in Bernie (2011; dir. Richard Linklater).