Possession is 9/10 of the Law
Lookin' for Love in All the Wrong Places
The last film that Jeff Nichols wrote and directed was the very interesting, very odd, and quite layered Take Shelter. His latest Mud is part coming-of-age movie, part Southern Gothic, part classic romance and part tragedy and complete curiosity. It features a couple of great kid performances and a top-tier cast supporting them.
Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland play two tweeners living on the Mississippi River. They're a couple of restless kids who hired help in their families, but with minimal supervision, have the freedom to sneak out at night exploring. On one of those pre-dawn excursions they motor over to an island and find a wonder—a boat nestled in a tree. Checking it out, they're in for a shock. Someone's living there.
That someone is Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is eking out an existence there. How he got there is a mystery. Why he's there is not. He's killed a man, who was messing with the girl he loves, and that man has a powerful family (led by Joe Don Baker). He's hiding out, waiting for word from Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and when he hears, they'll run off together, where...well, that's a little unspecific. In the meantime, he uses the little go-betweeners to get food, supplies, and word out, that includes to one of Ellis' (Sheridan) neighbors, a solitary man named Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who Mud labels "an assassin." Blankenship calls Mud a liar, making Ellis slightly conflicted; he's willing to do anything for Mud in his quixotic quest, out of a young man's puppy-love instincts, in part a response to the fracturing marriage of his parents (Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson) and his own interactions with "townie" girls, particularly May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).
It's to Ellis' advantage that he and "Neckbone" (Lofland) are under the radar of everybody's notice, his parents have other concerns and Neckbone's uncle (Michael Shannon) is in his own little world, so the two boys go back and forth between mainland and island with messages and supplies, which becomes increasingly complex when Mud decides he's going to get that boat out of the tree. And Ellis in his come-to-the-rescue way to interfere when one of the goons keeping an eye on Juniper gets aggressive with her trying to get information about Mud's whereabouts.
Things begin to spiral out of control to a conclusion that can't come to any good, despite everyone's best and worst intentions, due to the breaking of borders between the insular natures of the players.
But, there's something else going on here that creeps like an adder through the Louisiana swamp, something to do with misogyny. Maybe it's just the timing of events—no accidental as it's all in the control of the writer-director—but all the problems seem to generate from the war between men and women. The women here—Juniper, Ellis' mom, May Pearl—have an edge of capriciousness and undependability (in the males' eyes, anyway) that derails their plans and dreams. The men are hardly blameless, going through their lives with their eyes wide shut, totally aware that the women in their lives may prove disastrous in the short term, quixotically playing the hero or the rescuer, anyway. Everybody has some romantic view of life that is not theirs, and their pursuit of it proves their undoing. One leaves the theater with the sense of a good story well told, but with a stake through the heart in the futility of good intentions. One wants the waters of life to be smooth and transparent, but the reality of it is that it's the consistency of the movie's title.
Mud is a Matinee.