Every year, Toronto begins to take on certain themes by the festival's midpoint, and this year there were some strong, serious dramas involving characters who go it alone in life, and much of the time to their own detriment.
We find ourselves in eastern Arkansas' Mississippi Delta River country, a little to the right of Hushpuppy, in another of those dwindling communities on the water's edge where folks go to be forgotten. With Mark Twain in its blood, "Mud" is one of those coming-of-age films set over the course of a summer where things will never be the same again. It is also an effective suspense thriller, a quiet study of a dying way of life, and a perceptive character drama that forces its males to recognize the women in their lives as equals.
Featuring a breakout performance by young Tye Sheridan as Ellis--in only his second role (the first as the younger brother in The Tree of Life)--our story begins a little before the crack of dawn on a morning unlike the rest. Accompanied by best bud Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), the two--aged 14--sneak off in a motorboat leading to the mouth that feeds into the swift currents of the Mississippi River. They look upon it the way suburban kids do a busy street or highway their parents have deemed off limits. "Your dad would kill us if he knew we went out there". "I'm not worried about my Dad killing us", replies Ellis to the forbidden river.
On a little island across the great Mississippi is a terrific find: a small cruising boat with a neat interior cabin inexplicably lodged about 10 or 12 feet up a tree. "Who else knows about this?", asks Ellis. "Just me and Galen", Neckbone replies, referring to his scuba-diving uncle who makes trolling the river for lost junk a kind of calling.
Inside the boat's cabin, Neck discovers a sweet stash of porn magazines. Like most teen boys, they perfectly reflect the extent of his education and values on the topics of sex and girls in that he shoots right passed any notion of romantic idealism and straight into the business of plumbing. Ellis is quieter about that stuff. He finds a can of beans and what appears to be a still-fresh loaf of bagged bread. Back across the river they go but with the intention of returning to the island to figure out who exactly is occupying their boat.
In the meantime, portraits of the lives of both boys and their families are revealed in small, everyday moments. Each morning, Ellis and his fisherman father (Ray McKinnon) load their pick-up truck with coolers of seafood, making deliveries to folks in town. It's a trade that's seen better days. Ellis' mother (Sarah Paulson) is a pretty woman, though she doesn't play on that fact. Across from Ellis' place on the opposing bank lives the lonely, mysterious Tom (Sam Shepard). In town there's a girl Ellis is fond of named May Pearl. He finally finds an opportunity to approach her when he lands a TKO on an older boy who he sees playfully taunting her.
I love the way this story gradually reveals itself. Plot details don't just spring up out of nowhere; they grow out of decisions that its characters make along the way, and they are understood through the lens of adolescence as the two boys put away childish things and begin to see an adult world through a glass darkly. It shatters Ellis' illusions of love when he learns a hard lesson from May Pearl that sometimes a kiss really is just a kiss. At home, a major decision involving his parents further complicates his notion of love.
A plot slowly emerges involving the man occupying that boat. I won't give away anything except to tease you by revealing that it is indeed Matthew McConaughey, and his name is Mud. You can take that literally as well as figuratively. What's Mud doing out there? The boys aren't sure what to make of him at first, but over return visits to the island, Ellis and Mud develop a sort of kinship as they strike a deal that sees the boys getting the boat after they help Mud along his way. His story also grows in complexity, and involves Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who is stuck in a motel room in town waiting to re-connect with him.
This marks Jeff Nichols' third feature film after the impressive "Shotgun Stories" and the masterpiece that is "Take Shelter". Like emerging greats Ramin Bahrani (At Any Price) and Derek Cianfrance (The Place Beyond the Pines), Nichols has a way of making you feel like you're in the hands of an intelligent, gifted filmmaker whose stories sneak up on you with uncommon power. And for the third straight time, he brings cinematographer Adam Stone on board to capture life in the south in all its sweat and sun-kissed glory.
McConaughey delivers one of his best performances as Mud, a lost soul who we come to empathize a great deal with. Witherspoon, Shepard and Michael Shannon as Galen bring star power to roles that seem peripheral for a time but that are crucial at specific moments in the film's second half. Paulson and McKinnon are very good as Ellis' parents. When a dilemma in the family dynamic surfaces, a lesser film would make one of the parents an easy target, but that doesn't happen here. We really feel for all sides and it made me realize just how consequential the women in this picture become.
From the beginning, the women here are defined by how the males view them. By the end, they're defining themselves. From May Pearl to Juniper to Ellis' mom Mary Lee, they start out as things to be coveted only to grow before us as the characters whose decisions color much of the latter part of the stories they're involved in.
"Mud" is the title of the film, but it's Ellis who quietly steals the show here in a very challenging role that Tye Sheridan handles with bravery. He does a great job of allowing us into Ellis' world and into his thinking process, as he's forced throughout the picture to reconsider and adjust what he knows about life the more he steps into an unfamiliar adult realm.
I'm heartened by the fact that "Mud" comes after two other excellent regional American films that deal with real characters and not just plot tools. From a character epic in Schenectady in "Pines" to a moral crisis in the heartland in "At Any Price" to coming of age in the Delta, the spring of 2013 at the movies is highlighted by compelling, entertaining, and perceptive looks at modern American life. "Mud" is another wonderful film by Jeff Nichols, a director you need to seek out immediately.