Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ new movie is, well, clear as mud.
While adeptly illustrating a segment of life in the South, Nichols (Take Shelter) serves up a tale about two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who find an abandoned boat stuck in a tree off the Mississippi River. The boys also stumble upon a homeless man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and eventually discover he’s wanted for murder. In a Huckleberry Finn–style yarn, the boys set out to help the man escape the area while evading bounty hunters.
Nichols brings the characters to life as part of a potential “coming of age” story for the two boys, but viewers get more redneck language and mixed moral messages than resolution. “I don’t traffic in the truth too often,” Mud tells Ellis, who hears three versions of the man’s story and blindly chooses the one he wants to believe.
The PG-13 film enhances stereotypes of lazy men who drink, smoke, and carouse, and young men who think it’s cool to cuss. Mud carries strands of unfortunate reality, but real life includes consequences—something largely missing from the story. “True love” is held up as the chief of all virtues, although that’s basically defined as a decades-long infatuation with a woman, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who continually abandons Mud for flings with other men.
The film has its share of positives: McConaughey is superb as a backwoods fugitive, and Sheridan is sure to land more major roles in the future. The movie was filmed on the Arkansas banks of the Mississippi River, which enjoys its own character role and provides scenic views. And stories featuring murder, divorce, lying, cheating, and stealing can be useful: The Old Testament explores all these issues. Readers, however, aren’t in doubt about the Bible’s condemnation of such behavior, while Mud sends a more muddled message.
A movie doesn’t have to have a happy ending to be worth watching, but a clear direction is helpful.