There's an idea of the American South present in all Jeff Nichols' films that I hope will never die out. It still exists in pockets of my home state of Georgia, along lonely stretches of road in South Carolina, and on into the nearly forgotten cracks of so many other states. Folks still sit in near darkness, lighting up a small area where they can try to live out their lives the way they want to as peaceably as possible with no one getting in their way. It's the sort of place that used to fill my hopes for the future and now just filters into my dreams every so often.
Part of why Nichols' films are so affecting is that they don't forget about this idea of the South but never softens or condescends to it. Yes, the South is a place where kids can learn the lessons of life in a more hard knock fashion, but it's also a place where old wounds linger hard. In Nichols' first film, Shotgun Stories, two families are willing to go to war with one another because of sins committed before some of the characters are even born. Now, in Mud, Nichols shows that world with the clear eye and steady optimism of a kid who will learn to know better.
In its best scenes, Mud is about the unreality some areas shield themselves with to prevent moving on into the future. For better or worse, things are as they are and the inhabitants will be damned if anything is going to change. But change they must, and while some of that change echoes through the honest growth of adolescent Ellis (Tye Sheridan), some of it goes through action film conventions that don't square well with the rest of Nichols' vision of a country life that isn't so simple. Mud is a very good film, but veers into territory that keeps it from being a great one.
Mud's heart is in a coming-of-age story with Ellis trying to deal with the breakup of his mother and father. His other family isn't of much use, and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) hasn't quite hit the same emotional complications of puberty. Ellis and Neckbone happen upon a boat caught in the trees one day, housing a vagrant by the name of Mud (Matthew McConaughey). He's on the run from authoritative types, not quite the law, but folks who are more than willing to bribe the law to make sure that they get their revenge on Mud for a killing that may be justified.
May not too. Mud decided to adhere to a strict code of honor and revenge for the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon) who, like most objects of idealized perfection, may not be as interested as he is in living up to the dream. Nichols draws Mud's code through wonderful images that highlight his isolation through idealism. That boat, way up there in the trees, is the perfect metaphor for a man who tries to live so nobly but doesn't have the means to continue on. He contrasts just so slightly from his father, a man who has his own code and keeps a solitary light on by the lake, but has his head, and home, weighed firmly grounded.
Ellis learns the realities of adult life through Mud, Mud's father, and the troubles of his parents. I love the way that Nichols has Ellis trying to live the life of an ideal Southern man, meeting disrespect with his fists and showing nothing but courtesy to the ladies, and having some success at first. As the kids gets slowly introduced to the adult world the lights grow dimmer and the bruises more prominent. Ideals are nice and all, but he's learning that other people won't just stand aside because he feels them so strongly. This is also in a parallel story of Ellis' first love, a high schooler named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), who is just old enough to realize that youthful idealism isn't enough but immature enough to string him along for the affection. We see the seeds of young Mud through Ellis' love here, and the threat of what's to come if the kid doesn't learn better.
In fact, so much of Ellis' growth reflects the adult side plots that I became too aware of the structure watching Mud. It's not a bad thing, but feels a bit too pat. I like that Nichols tries to find the perfect visual metaphor in these isolated surroundings but some images, like Ellis' uncle searching the bottom of the river in an old diving suit, are a bit too off-beat to jive with the rest of the fairly realistic tone of the film. It also suffers from a soundtrack that's too intrusive and willing to underline the emotions of each scene. After Take Shelter, with its brilliant use of ambient insect noises and overall lack of a musical score, this came as a strange misstep. Sure, the kid is going to feel emotion stronger than everyone else will because of where he is in his life, but with the images already going a bit too far in establishing the development of isolated idealism the soundtrack takes things a step too far.
Worse still is when the film devolves for a moment into action film clichés toward the end. This was the most awkward transition of all, very literally portraying the struggle of ideals versus reality by gunpoint. It almost broke the tender spirit of the film, portrayed with heavy eyes by McConaughey. These moments feel like a leftover from his days diving into the ocean with Kate Hudson, not in a soulful film of a young teenager coming to grips with the realities of the world.
But even with those last missteps, there is little wrong with Mud. Even the action, disruptive though it is, plays into the fantasy when you're young that you get to be the hero some day. It's never that simple and when Mud remembers this, it's an amazing experience.