Mud (2012)

There’s something about all those signifiers of a ‘coming of age’ story that can really raise my hackles when watching a film. The idealistic young kids coming up against the harshness of their parents’ world, the fumbling and humiliation of young love, the wistful voiceover recalling an earlier time of life. Well at least that last isn’t in Mud, and I will concede that the ‘coming of age movie’ clichés don’t totally overpower the story, but the richness and wonder of the opening isn’t really sustained throughout the whole film.

I wanted to get that positive in there early, because it’s not really fair to lead a review with the stuff that bothered me. If Mud can be praised for anything, it’s a really sure sense of place, probably because the director and many of the actors are familiar with this part of the world (the American South of Arkansas, specifically). And there is wonder in those trips up river that the young kids take, a wonder at the spectacular vista of nature in the opening shot that is undimmed in the adults as the film ends. Of course, the river as a metaphor for the onward progress of life with all its twists and tributaries is a very old and powerful one, but the specifics of this location are everything. There is the floating riverside home of the film’s central character Ellis (Tye Sheridan), the island inhabited by Matthew McConaughey’s modern castaway Mud, and the pearl fishing undertaken in a dramatic diving helmet (almost steampunk in its stylised antiquity) by Michael Shannon, playing the uncle of Ellis’ best friend Neckbone.

There’s also nothing shabby about the acting. McConaughey is introduced with cigarette clenched between his teeth, drawling a few enigmatic pseudo-profundities to the kids on the sandy beachfront of the island, but he moves well beyond a one-note caricature of the man with a shadowy past, and over the course of the film has rounded out enough as a character that the violent dénouement (I shall say no more about what happens or the reasons for it, for the usual spoilery reasons) comes as a bit of a surprise, puncturing the atmosphere the film has hitherto created. The young Tye Sheridan, as the actual heart of the film, carries off his role without too much recourse to wistful blankness at what’s happening around him. I liked Jacob Lofley too as Neckbone, in particular his constant compulsive recourse to gauche profanity as if it made him feel more like a knowing grown-up, not to mention his gruff direct questioning of the adults.

Reese Witherspoon too does what she can with Juniper, Mud’s love interest who appears to be waiting for him in a nearby town. The problem is that the female characters are very much at the mercy of the men in the story — certainly not subservient by any means, but, as characters, largely defined by the way the men talk about them. For this, above all else, is a film about (admittedly misguided) patriarchal attitudes as passed down from fathers to sons. All the adult male characters talk about women, share their bad experiences with love, and create an environment wherein Ellis’s central journey (that coming of age story) is to move past these preconceptions with the help of McConaughey’s societal misfit. And if that all seems a little bit too neatly orchestrated, then there’s also the way the script introduces characters (Sam Shepard’s grizzled old veteran Tom, in particular) with skillsets all too convenient for the way the film resolves itself.

Ultimately, the film tries too hard to draw out profundity from the murky depths of these characters and sets itself up for a slightly unsatisfying conclusion. Ellis’s character arc is so predicated on his emotional coming of age that the life-threatening situations he is put in barely seem to register. It’s instead the final shot, refocusing again on the spectacular Arkansas landscape, which provides the key to where the strengths of the film really lie.

Director/Writer Jeff Nichols; Cinematographer Adam Stone; Starring Tye Sheridan, Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard, Reese Witherspoon; Length 131 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Tuesday 14 May 2013.

7 thoughts on “Mud (2012)

    1. I reckon it’s still worth watching, and maybe you can catch up with it at home sometime. Enough people really liked it that you should probably judge it for yourself ;)

  1. Nice review. I liked this more than you did and it’s my favorite movie thus far this year, though I’ve only seen two new films. It isn’t without its flaws nor is it better than Nichol’s Take Shelter, but I found it very compelling.

    1. I should definitely check out Take Shelter. For some reason, I didn’t really engage with Mud as much as others like yourself who’ve reviewed it positively. It all just felt too familiar, didn’t seem to ring true, though a lot of that was from the closing half hour or so, which I think derails the film a bit.

  2. I tend to agree that Mud’s conclusion doesn’t quite fit – it’s a bit too obvious and large in scale for what is otherwise (in my mind) a delicate, meandering and very good film. It’s so evocative of quite old-fashioned American culture – I’m surprised there haven’t been more references to Huckleberry Finn in reviews, for example. I thought McConaughey was excellent – I’m very much enjoying the direction he’s taking as an actor. Thinking about your recent discussion of star ratings, I feel like your review doesn’t quite match the rating you give it (although I’m biased, because I thought the film deserved more than that); this is the problem with stars in general though, which provide nothing but an instant guide, compared to your thoughts on it. With regards to them, it’s an interesting and considered review – I don’t actually disagree with any of it, apart from the two stars! 8-)

    1. I stand by my two stars! In my rating scale that still indicates it’s worth watching, but perhaps what I didn’t emphasise enough in my review is how much I was underwhelmed by the story. It just all seemed too familiar (admittedly that may be part of what you say about it fitting into a sort of American archetypal coming-of-age story as embodied by Huckleberry Finn), and although the location-specific details were great and I talked about those, they weren’t enough to lift the film (for me) from triteness.

      Then again, I liked it more than the other film I posted a review of today, which I also gave two stars for rather different reasons… It’s all about the overall gut feeling, and unfortunately for me Mud just didn’t feel like that better film you have described!

      1. Ah, there’s nothing wrong with disagreeing! 8-) I hated Star Trek – I’m a fan of the original series, but hardly a Trekker, but this just felt smug, self-indulgent and predictable. I agree that stars are about a gut feeling. As someone who watches (and loves) bad movies, I struggle with them because my enjoyment factor may be worth 5 stars but the film’s actual aesthetics, narrative etc deserve 1… I think quite often my ratings don’t match my comments because of this.


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