They say that things develop more slowly in the south and that’s exactly the approach that Mud takes to tell its story. This is a slow-moving drama centered around a boy, his friend, a runaway fugitive, and love. Or, it takes this approach before suddenly kicking into high gear for its climax, which feels rushed and out of place as a result. About three-quarters of Mud work incredibly well; when it tries to do something else — be a more thrilling experience — it’s less of a success.
The film centers on Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who spend their days wandering around De Witt, Arkansas both on foot, by motorcycle, and by boat. Ellis lives right along the Mississippi River, and the boys are allowed to take the boat out as long as they’re home for chores and work. Neckbone gets word that a very nice boat is stuck in a tree on a small island near them, so they travel to check it out. Here, they meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who claims to be waiting for someone. That’s true, but as is often the case, there’s more to the story.
Mud is waiting for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and is living in that boat until the day comes when he can leave and meet her in town. We later learn that this is true, but that he’s on the island hiding from both cops and bounty hunters. He killed a man who was physically abusing Juniper. He did it for love. Does that make it right? It does in Ellis’ eyes. The boys agree to help him get the boat down from the tree so that Mud can use it to escape with Juniper. Isn’t that sweet?
Much of Mud is sweet. The boys get to learn about love from the adults in their lives and Ellis even tries to apply it to his own life, with mixed results. Some might classify this as a coming-of-age story. That could be true for both Ellis and Mud. Both grow a tremendous amount over the movie’s duration. Ellis progresses more slowly, while Mud finally gets into a situation where he’s forced to do some growing.
This is a plot which progresses slowly and deliberately. To say otherwise would be a lie. If you hate slow-moving dramas, you will not enjoy Mud. If you have more patience, you’ll find a very sweet movie about relationships and love that is rarely dull even though it isn’t throwing things our way at a rapid-fire pace. It has a tremendous sense of atmosphere and I think that pacing helps with that. Whether or not things do happen more slowly in the southern states is kind of irrelevant; the film posits that they do and because of its sense of setting the pacing just helps give us a feel of where the film takes place.
That slow pace gets thrown out the window in the film’s final quarter. We get scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in thrilling action films. There’s even a shootout. It doesn’t fit in with the established tone. It’s upsetting, perhaps deliberately so. Anything low-key is thrown out the window and shot like a pulled Frisbee. Subtlety is removed from the picture entirely. Where did the movie I was enjoying go?
Mud also would have been better to cut its last scene, which felt too generic, too Hollywood, to fit in with the rest of the movie. It’s nice and it wraps everything up; ambiguity might have been better here. It’s like Mud had significant studio interference with its final quarter and in particular its final moment. “People will get bored and need everything wrapped up with a little bow,” I’m sure they said, before forcing what probably would have been a darker and more ambiguous finale into the trash.
There are also several underdeveloped plot threads that could have either been expanded upon or trimmed completely. Ellis’ parents have a tumultuous relationship but beyond seeming them fight a couple of times that’s not really explored. Ellis begins a “relationship” with an older local girl, although that also only gets a scene or two. Neckbone has an uncle played by Michael Shannon whose whole purpose seems to be to give one speech to Ellis and give Michael Shannon some work. Nothing would be lost if his character was excised.
The role of Mud was purportedly written for Matthew McConaughey. He is great in it. He’s both understated and somehow still more showy than Ellis. The role doesn’t call for a great deal of emotion but McConaughey captures the screen regardless. Tye Sheridan is up to the challenge of going toe-to-toe with him. Child actors aren’t often good but Sheridan turns in a surprisingly good performance. His growth contrasted with the lack thereof from Jacob Lofland as Neckbone is powerful. Reese Witherspoon has a thankless role as a love interest.
Mud has a couple of underdeveloped subplots and a lack of focus in its final quarter, but for the most part it’s a slow-paced film about the growth of a teenager and love. It’s a somewhat long movie, but its deliberate pacing helps establish atmosphere. This isn’t a film for those lacking in patience. It has very solid performances, in particular from Tye Sheridan and Matthew McConaughey, and isn’t boring even if it could have been in lesser hands. Mud comes recommended.