Jonathan Kim is an independent film critic who writes and produces film reviews for Uprising and other outlets. He is a former co-producer at Brave New Films.
Turn on your indie radars, because I’ve got a great movie you’re going to want to track down. It’s called ‘Mud’, and a third of the way into 2013, it’s the best movie I’ve seen so far this year. It skillfully yet almost casually manages to mix a coming of age tale, a twisty crime thriller, and a tragic love story in the slow-flowing waters of the Mississippi river, producing a masterful film with an edgy, contemporary darkness, yet with the timeless feel of adolescent adventures like ‘Stand By Me’ and ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’.
‘Mud’ follows two junior-high-age boys growing up in Arkansas in the poor and increasingly scarce houseboat fishing communities along the river’s edge. Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) is at the age where he’s starting to get interested in girls, but his concepts of love and relationships are being battered by his parents’ constant fighting and impending divorce, which could lead to Ellis moving away from the river life he loves so much.
One day, Ellis and his best friend Neckbone (played by Jacob Lofland) take a boat to a small island to find an abandoned boat they heard had been swept into the branches of a tree by a flood. But it turns out that the boat is inhabited by a mysterious stranger who appears to be living on the island. He goes by the name of Mud and is played by Matthew McConaughey in one of his best dramatic roles to date. While the boys are initially wary of Mud, especially because he’s carrying a gun, they agree to help him by bringing him food and scrounging materials Mud can use to bring the boat down from the tree and repair it. As the boys become more enamored with Mud, he reveals that he’s actually wanted by the law and that he’s waiting on the island until he can meet up with his lost love, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon), who’s waiting for him at a nearby hotel. With Ellis desperate for a male role model and to keep his belief in love alive, he commits himself and, by extension, Neckbone to helping Mud and Juniper reunite, which puts the boys in more danger than they’d imagined.
One of the most fascinating things about ‘Mud’ is its sense of place and how that intertwines with Ellis’ transition into young adulthood. While the river makes a great playground for Ellis and Neckbone as sort of a modern-day Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, the lives of the poor white people who live on the river and rely on it for their livelihoods feels like the last gasp of a bygone era. Not only is the possibility of Ellis having to leave the river due to his parents’ divorce a metaphor for leaving his childhood, but in Ellis’ eyes, it also symbolizes not only the failure and unreliability of the most important adults in his life, but the failure of his boyish ideas about love and the role men should play in relationships, which Ellis is trying to work out through his crush on an older girl. Then Mud comes along, a cool adult who treats Ellis and Neckbone like adults and affirms Ellis’ adolescent belief that true love conquers all, and it’s easy to see why Ellis would invest and risk so much to help a dangerous man he hardly knows.
‘Mud’ is a film where you never know what’s going to happen next as the tension and the stakes increase, yet has the feel of life simply unfolding where no one knows what’s going to happen next, where everyone seems to be in over their heads and you just hope that no one gets seriously hurt. It has great performances, particularly McConaughey and the two boys, and the film’s tone and understated naturalistic cinematography feel just right. Seriously, ‘Mud’ is a great film, so do yourself a favor and keep your eye out for it, and you can thank me later.
‘Mud’ is rated PG-13 and opens today.