Two 14-year old Arkansas boys on a motorboat visit a secluded, marshy beach to explore a small wrecked houseboat perched high in a gnarled tree. As they poke around the cabin, discovering a wealth of “Penthouse” magazines, they also spy a boot print with a cross shape in the heel. After climbing down from their bonanza, they find the same footprint in the sand – leading to a disheveled, cigarette-smoking man fishing from the shore. Young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is intrigued by the stranger, who claims he’s waiting for someone and is stranded there temporarily. Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is more suspicious of the “bum” who, down on his luck, wishes to make a trade of the houseboat for some food.
The two boys return later with a backpack full of canned goods, this time observing a pistol peaking out of the man’s jeans. He seems harmless enough, speaking of his unfathomably beautiful girlfriend June (Reese Witherspoon), for whom he waits, and the two follow “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey) around on the patch of land for awhile longer, listening to his mythical stories. Ellis is determined to help Mud reunite with his lover, a task made more difficult when state troopers spread photos of the wanted man, who then recounts his tale of necessary, chivalrous murder to his collaborators. Nonetheless, the young duo agrees to help Mud get the houseboat waterborne, acquiring a list of items to bring the craft to operational status and calling upon the neighboring, elderly, and mysterious Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard) for further assistance.
Ellis has a father who loves him and gets along respectably, but is distant due to a looming divorce from his mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson). Mud serves as a more compatible, comrade-like guardian figure that can share and relate in the misadventures of adolescence. He reveals that he never had a father, though Tom assumed that role from time to time. Similarly, Neckbone only has his uncle (Michael Shannon) for a fairish male presence in his life. Ellis is convinced, immutably, that Mud is heroic, defiant, and macho – all qualities he idolizes and that warrant the winning of an attractive damsel in distress. In his own interactions with women (both June and his more equivalently aged classmates), Ellis resorts to either doling out physical violence or absorbing it, believing that brute strength or bullheaded defense is just the pageantry part of the romancing process.
“You can’t trust love, Ellis,” admits his father (played by Ray McKinnon). Although he speaks of his wife, Witherspoon shares in the potential threat of a corruption of idealized childhood love, along with Ellis’ own romantic interest in the fickle May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a high-schooler he daringly rescues from male harassment. Through his observation of his quarreling parents, along with the budding awareness of sexuality and the female form, Ellis attaches an unachievable standard to Mud and June’s devotion – one that desperately needs to replace what he believes is failing between his parents and eventually with May Pearl. In the end, as he begins to grasp the oftentimes deceptive nature of affections, his perception of love must be shattered before it can be rebuilt from future positive experiences.
The dialogue is notably natural and delivered quite authentically by the entire cast. The look and feel of the characters matches the realistic presentation of locations, vernacular, and the teenaged point of view, with Sheridan and Lofland appearing as non-actors (giving outstanding performances) ripped straight from the shooting region. It also features a particularly riveting climax that takes advantage of previous foreshadowing and sharp editing. “Mud” is a welcome coming-of-age drama of a rare form, brave enough to be methodically paced (but admittedly overlong), sensible, and sincere, rather than approaching the central early teen roles with slapstick and whimsy. It’s tense, dark, sober, and impressively unique.
- The Massie Twins