Jeff Nichols’ newest film, now available on Blu-ray and Ultraviolent digital download, offers layers of metaphor and meaning to chew on, not to mention literary and cinematic resonances galore. There’s a little "Beasts of the Southern Wild" here, more than a smidge of "Winter’s Bone," and a whole lot of "Tom Sawyer" and "Huckleberry Finn."
But the film’s central premise is decidedly elemental, as down and dirty as its title. "Mud" is the name of a fugitive living in woods of an island in the Mississippi river; he’s played by Matthew McConaughey, who grow progressively more covered with grime and desperation as the film continues.
Mud has taken up residence in a boat that’s become lodged high up in a tree thanks to a recent flood. When two 14-year-old pals discover the boat, and him, Mud makes them a deal: If they’ll help him out and bring him food, he’ll give them the boat.
Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) is skeptical. Watchful and brusque, Neckbone seems the epitome of a young man who could just as easily go wrong as not; bereft of both parents since an early age, he’s being raised by his uncle (Michael Shannon, a veteran of earlier Nichols’ films). Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is more thoughtful, more discerning, and more sensitive; it’s Ellis who decides to help Mud, and who invests himself in the story Mud tells of a beautiful girlfriend, a brutal act of chivalry in her defense that results in a man dying, and his resulting outlaw status, which finds him wanted by the law as well as the family of the man he killed. The girlfriend turns out to be real -- her name is Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) -- and so do the vengeful pursuers (led by Paul Sparks, Shannon’s "Boardwalk Empire" co-star).
Ellis needs to believe in love that will persist against all odds, and love that will motivate a man to kill; or rather, he needs to believe in something more permanent than the embers of his own parents’ connection, which has run its course, with their marriage following close behind. He’s also falling in love, himself, though with the sort of girls who won’t take him seriously -- that is, older girls who view him as a kid.
"Mud" is one of those movies that exists two steps away from magical realism of a particularly rough, masculine stripe, while finding a perch in the twilight years between childhood and adolescence -- think "Stand By Me" by way of Quentin Tarantino. In the end, it’s hard to say whether the morale is that women are dangerous for grown men, or whether the message is that it’s not women but commitment that will bring an otherwise perfectly solid man to ruin. If there are many fish in the river, and freedom is to be found on the wide water, what man would ever choose to wrap himself around one mate for the rest of his life? Sam Shepard co-stars as a tough older man, the voice of bitter experience who seems to know this, and know equally well the futility of trying to convince the young and the lovelorn otherwise.
The Blu-ray release contains a host of provocative special features, including a commentary track with Nichols, who explains the story’s origins; featurettes that examine the characters, the setting (modern day Arkansas, the watery byways of which retain a wild backwoods character), the film’s genesis, and the poisonous snakes that lend bite to the movie’s narrative and subtextual beats. (This last featurette is fairly comical, consisting of outtakes in which the film’s young star tries to stop himself from laughing as non-venomous snakes slither across his face.) The featurettes contain plenty of the mutual backslapping and praise that every movie’s cast and crew seem to engage in, but there are also interesting tidbits about where Nichols is coming from and how he conceived and wrote each of his characters.
A rich slice of cinema with a gothic undertow, this will silence McConaughey doubters and launch at least one new star -- Sheridan is as good as his castmates.
Blu-ray and Ultraviolet digital download