One sweaty afternoon whilst Huck Finn-ing it through the Arkansas woods, two teenage boys discover a boat, miraculously and surrealistically nestled atop a cluster of old oak trees. They claim the boat as their own but, soon find that they may not be the only ones who claim ownership. Mud is many things: An intelligent and original thriller, a thoughtful and moving character study and (dare I say) the first great and visually stunning film of 2013. (Other than Shane Carruth's Upstream Color.)
But, back to Mud: Ellis (Tree of Life's Ty Sheridan) and Neckbone (local Arkansas newcomer Jacob Lofland) are detached from the internet, school-cliques or any other modern teen related trappings one might expect. They're utterly unpopular with anything else in the area that even remotely resembles a teenager-- instead choosing to spend their free time in the woods that bank the nearby Mississippi river.
When the aforementioned boat is discovered, they also notice footprints. Footprints that lead to Mud (Matthew McConaughey on a very good run following Killer Joe and Bernie) a mysterious but charismatic drifter who lives on the island where the boat was found.
He grins at the boys, cock-eyed. "What's that gun for?" Mud is asked. "Protection," he replies. As it turns out, Mud isn't just living on the boat. He is hiding out on it. But hiding from who...?
And here's where it gets interesting: When the villains do rear their ugly heads, they do so in a refreshingly nonpareil manner. Instead of bursting into the film with a fury of violence, they enter almost silently. Their ringleader, a man known as King, played by Joe Don Baker (GoldenEye; Cape Fear) asks that his foot soldiers take a knee and join him in a quiet prayer. Everyone in this story believes them self to be the hero. They all think they're doing the right thing.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols (the Oscar-nominated Take Shelter and the under-seen masterpiece Shotgun Stories) often draws influence from the work of Mark Twain. (For those of you who were confused by the term 'Huck Finn-ing it', here comes your explanation.) Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer's lazy sunny afternoons out in the sticks, combined with a dash of southern Gothic-- that influence can undeniably be felt while watching Mud.
Neckbone asks Ellis if he has spoken to "that girl" yet. Ellis has not. Neckbone laughs: "Hell, you're gonna hafta talk to her eventually." It's that time during adolescence when the opposite sex is intriguing but, nearly unattainable. Hormones, peer pressure and long summer days don't help matters at all. When we first meet Ellis, he is hiding outside his parents window, listening to them talk. Even for a boy his age, he knows just from the tone of their voices, there is trouble in paradise. Whether you're 13 or 103 years old, love is not easy.
Mud is being advertised as a thriller and so it should be. In fact, it's a top notch thriller. But, to describe the story in such simple genre terms would be reductive. At its heart, Mud is a good old fashion boat story. Which (even with a shirtless Matthew McConaughey... ladies?) is a tougher sell. So, you can understand why the studio might wish to highlight the thriller aspects in trailers. The only reason to mention the marketing aspect of the film (or cryptically avoid any spoilers) is because, well... I really want people to see this flick!
A vast majority of movies seem to be fast asleep -- their plot lines regrettably locked on auto-pilot. This is a film that is very much awake, intelligent and totally unique.
Mud is not quite a masterpiece but, it's pretty damn close.
Side Note: The boat in the tree brought to mind a similar image from Werner Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God. In fact, Mud has several moments that could be deemed Herzog-ian. Many involve Neckbone's Uncle Galen played pitch perfectly by Michael Shannon, an oyster fisherman who employs old-timey scuba gear straight out of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Great, funny, bizarre stuff.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. In addition to ShowbizMonkeys.com, Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine and The Uniter. You can find Tony on Twitter.