“You’re a good man, Ellis.”
This approbation comes near the end of Jeff Nichols’ Mud, and serves as crucial validation for the film’s 14-year-old hero. Much of Mud finds Nichols exploring the lengths to which a boy will go to be treated as an equal by a man he respects. Through selfless labor and violence and love, Ellis tenaciously builds up the ground beneath him in a grasp for equal footing, and every last action rings of utter truth. Because Jeff Nichols understands that most of us are still boys, falling over ourselves to prove that we’re not.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) lives with his feuding parents in a boathouse on the Mississippi River. The bad blood between his father, Senior (Ray McKinnon) and mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) is baseless to Ellis. It betrays his steadfast belief that love is all you need, and functionally means the end of their treasured boathouse on the Mississippi. Ellis escapes the daily turmoil with his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), taking their small fishing boat to a nondescript island where Neckbone has discovered an abandoned boat perched, miraculously, in the branches of a tree. And this is where the boys meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and where the passage into manhood begins.
Mud is in a conspicuous bind, having made his home in the skybound boat on a middle-of-nowhere island, needing children to bring him food in exchange for anything he has that they might want. The boys are skeptical, but Mud is a man with a code, and the romantic Ellis is enamored of codes and mystery and the general raiment of a weathered life. By the time he learns that Mud is waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a woman he killed for, a woman he is on the run for, a woman he has loved his whole life, Ellis is prepared to go to hell and back for the man; an allegiance that Jeff Nichols, the film’s writer and director—and the writer/director of 2011’s underappreciated Take Shelter—uses to illuminate Ellis in ways that make your heart ache.
The fulcrum of Mud is the earnestness with which an adolescent views his world. From frame one we recognize the perfect naiveté Ellis harbors, the way that a boat and a buddy can still mean true freedom, or the heartrending power of infatuation with the idea of a person, lacking any evidence and stronger for it. This is a potent device, and not simply because it’s a place we all remember fondly. Not because of the authenticity of the kinship between Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan, or because Sheridan’s performance is so alarmingly nuanced. Mud is a story with a range of angles; 9 times out of 10, another director would have treated Mud as his lead and the film would be a straightforward crime thriller. Nichols chose the blind innocence of a child because his story isn’t about the drama of crime. It’s not about the trials of love or the fear of retribution for violence. It’s about the ways the world can betray you, and the monumental pain of that betrayal when all you’ve ever known is that things have a way they’re supposed to work. What nobody tells you is that this moment, when you learn for the first time that destiny is nonsense, that the world doesn’t care about you or your future, this is the first moment of your adult life.
Though his outlook seems cynical and his stories seem hard, Jeff Nichols is ultimately a deeply sensitive filmmaker. He writes characters who come from hard places, but have done their best not to let those hard places harden them. Even with characters whose emotional calluses have crystallized past the point of softening—as with Mud’s villains, or the coarse old drifter Tom Blankenship, played impeccably by Sam Shepard—their austerity is the result of distilled heartache, and not simply a trait used to position them against the more earnest characters. There’s a tendency when depicting the blue collar South towards bleakness, towards a ruthless survival of the fittest. While Jeff Nichols doesn’t shy away from the hard realities of America’s contemporary struggles, his films are far more interested in shining a light than casting a shadow.