When a film like Jeff Nichol’s Mud gets its premiere at Sundance, it immediately becomes the victim of quite a bit of unwarranted slander. For one thing, the film already has distribution with Lionsgate, and the fact that one of its leading roles is played by the likes of Matthew McConaughey, makes it an easy target of people who just want to simply dismiss the film on the grounds that it just isn’t quite “Indie” enough. It is my hope to help sweep aside some of these ridiculous notions.
The Sundance byline for Mud makes it seem like it’s just going to be a more high dollar version of last year’s runaway hit Beasts of the Southern Wild. Like Beasts, it takes place in the more rundown, indigent parts of the American South, and tells the story of two kids, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), whose youthful innocence causes them to view the complex and oft-times depressing happenings of the world around them, as just the first stops on a great adventure. Matthew McConaughey plays Mud, a disheveled redneck hermit who strikes up an unlikely friendship with the two children when they stumble upon his home, a boat stuck up in a giant tree. As the story unfolds, the children work to unravel the mystery of who Mud is, and just how in the world he ended up living on a tiny island in the middle of a river.
You really can’t talk about this film without first addressing the phenomenal acting that came from the likes of both child actors, in particular that of Tye Sheridan. Though his character in this film is only 14 years of age, he displays a sort of time-hardened wisdom and clarity which far surpasses that of all of the adults in the film. Many child actors crumple under the burden of such a role, but Tye seems unequivocally at home. He’s got that same kind of uncharacteristic maturity that made all of Dakota Fanning’s early roles so damn unsettling and it made him the perfect fit for this role
Then there is the matter of McConaughey’s performance. For McConaughey, a film like Mud meant that he was going to have to work fairly diligently to break free from the typical associations that years of typecasting have forced his audiences to identify him with. Yes Mud has Matthew doing one or two of his contractual shirtless scenes, but at least Jeff Nichols helped to ugly him up a bit. The thick layer of dirt on his clothes and body, paired with a good set of goofy dental work, help create a wonderful hokey hillbilly exterior, and because of this, the audience can more easily accept him in a role that in all likelihood was written for the likes of Woody Harrelson.
Though it is unlikely that Mud will live up to the expectations of those who were floored by Jeff Nichols’ last film, Take Shelter, it is still a powerful film in its own right. At some point in every person’s life there comes a time when the world tries to strip them of the storybook ideals that are drilled into the heads of children, yet made to be forcibly disregarded as they become adults. This is what Mud is really about. To some it will be a movie about the uplifting power of true love. For others it will be about disenchantment with such things. Nichols allows the audience to derive their own personal meaning from his film, and because of this, it has quickly become my favorite film of the festival so far.
Mud opens in select markets in both France and the US this coming April so keep your eyes peeled!