Jeff Nichols the director of MUD was also the director of TAKE SHELTER – a film whose hallucinatory cinematography stayed with me so “hard and long” that eventually I needed to make a painting to push it out of my head. MUD has some of that same visual power and palpable sense of place – this time we are not in the fields of Ohio, but rather in Arkansas in houseboats along the Mississippi River.
This is a movie about trust, and LOVE, revealing the different forms this powerful emotion engenders - familial love, obsessive love, romantic love, the innocence of first love, and the disillusionment that often comes when we eventually step out of love’s rose-colored “bubble” and come face to face with the reality of loss and separation - all seen through the eyes of young boys inching toward adulthood. Two expressive smart fourteen years old best buddies, the sensitive dreamer Ellis (soulfully acted by Tye Sheridan) and his more down-to-earth pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland ) live their lives and participate in their family livelihood along the banks of the Mississippi River; the river being a major character in this film beautifully unearthing mysteries and the expansive dream of freedom.
One early morning the two boys piloting their motorboat come upon a magical scene – a large boat perched in a tree on an island in the bayou. They decide that this will be their secret hideout. But upon further investigation they find that someone else is already living there. We then encounter a scraggly man called Mud ( Matthew McConaughey acting against pretty-boy type) who is both chilling and portentous, but also vulnerable and in need of help. Ellis, with the candor and freshness of youth, trusts his intuition and decides to assist this stranger - the quintessential vagabond who can spin yarns that enchant. The more skeptical friend Neckbone goes along for the proverbial “ride”, but eventually he too is bewitched by Mud’s persona and his explanation for why he is hungry, literally exposed, and in circumstances fraught with danger. Reese Witherspoon plays Juniper the gorgeous long-legged, woman – the actualization of Mud’s life-long fantasies and his Achilles heel. Sam Shepard whose presence often steals most scenes, is again stoic and compelling, portraying another sphinxlike loner living on the river who has a past relationship with Mud and along with Michael Shannon (the hero of TAKE SHELTER) a surrogate father figure.
The boys are then drawn into a complicated scenario of flight, menace and rescue. Ellis, with his essential goodness strengthened because of meeting the enigmatic Mud, displays an honesty and directness which is unusually refreshing. He ultimately accepts his own family's intricate relationship, and becomes prepared to confront the puzzle that is life with his youthful idealism still intact.