I’ve never quite understood America’s tendency to romanticize its Southern states, and venerate and mystify a culture it frankly seems to spend more time mocking. It’s for this reason I was somewhat hesitent as I ventured into Mud, the latest film by up-and-coming talent Jeff Nichols, which is steeped in Southern romanticism. It’s probably because I’m a jaded, new-wave-y twenty-something that the film only really started to win me over when it did an about-face and started deconstructing most of the romantic, folkloric energy it rode in on. Hell, why construct when you can deconstruct, am I right?
The film centers on Ellis, a young boy who, with his friend Neckbone (because apparently there are still parts of America where you can name your child Neckbone) stumble across Mud, a man on the run from the law living on a small island in the Mississippi river. Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, tells them he’s hiding out after shooting a man who attacked his girlfriend, played by Reese Witherspoon. Neckbone seems, quite correctly so, instantly distrustful, but Ellis is almost immediately taken in by Mud’s easy charm and mystique. The two boys begin to help Mud in escaping the island, reuniting with his love, and evading the crew of bounty hunters that show up later in the film to capture him.
The film, as I mentioned, is steeped in the folkloric right from the get-go, practically drowning in a torrent of Mark Twain-esque Southern myth-making. Mud himself seems like the archetype of the Southern rogue, a smooth-talking vagabond with crosses in his boot-heels, tall tales, and wisdom drawled from behind a crumpled cigarette. He appears before the boys like a spectre, almost always popping up behind them like a grime-coated ninja, and lives in and around a boat that flooding has left stuck in a tree. Ellis, in his enthusiasm to escape his rapidly crumbling home life, is taken in by the escape into adventure Mud seems to offer. To him, Mud is a way out of the tedium and hardship of everyday life and into his personal Tom Sawyer story. Reality, of course, is a tenacious bitch, and soon rears her ugly head to smack Ellis out of his adventure.
With a mild SPOILER WARNING, Mud turns out to be less than he appears, and what to Ellis seemed like a hero to aspire to turns out to be someone just as lost and confused as he is. The result is something akin to watching a child confront Santa Clause over not being real (that analogy made more sense in my head) and the scene where Ellis finally confronts Mud is the dramatic heart of the movie. It’s in this way that Mud seems like an anti-romantic film, more interested in deconstructing the tropes it initially seemed to be championing. The dashing rogue, with his romantic streak and smooth Southern charm, is revealed to be nothing near the mythic figure he initially cut, but rather just another lost soul hiding behind a facade, one seen through by almost everyone but someone looking desperately for an escape from the real world.
It’s interesting and definitely meaningful that Matthew McConaughey is the one to bring Mud to life, as it’s exactly this kind of figure that most of his career has been built on: the bohemian charmer with a twinkle in his eye and a drawl in his voice, full of confidence and swagger. The fact that Mud is in many ways opposed to or at least casting a critical eye on this figure marks a self-awareness that McConaughey seemed almost incapable of a few years ago, and mud definitely seems like another sign of his maturation as an actor. Or at least that his agent knows what the hell he’s doing.
Of course, Mud isn’t entirely McConaughey’s party. Child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland carry most of the movie as Ellis and Neckbone respectively. Mostly Sheridan, as Neckbone seems more like a supporting character, and Ellis’ becoming wise to Mud’s true nature is really the crux of the movie. Neither of them put in the kind of performance child acting legend is made of, but they both do a very fine job all the same.
Things only really fall short in the ending, which features a thrilling gunfight that seems almost to act in opposition to the film’s anti-mythic tendencies, and the only thing that saves it from being a serious blemish is a short scene afterwards to remind us that the baddies on the receiving end of a shotgun enema are human after all.
People are already calling Mud a new American classic, and it isn’t hard to see why, even if I don’t entirely echo the sentiment, preferring to call it just a very, very good film. It’s a movie that takes a critical look at the power of folklore and romanticism, and doesn’t shy away from the harshness that comes with deconstructing the fairy tales and notions that keep us comfortable. In this way, Mud is a more interesting and risk-taking coming-of-age film than last week’s Kings of Summer, and a more frank film about the nature of childhood and growth. But it doesn’t have Alison Brie, so they’re still on an even keel.