This Southern Gothic update of Mark Twain’s study of a child’s eye of manhood establishes a fantastically minor-key sense of place, just as 2012’s Beasts of the Southern Wild did slightly downriver, with the Mississippi delta, before it. A character study and coming of age story at heart, it is bleak, submerging its layers of magical realism more subtly than did Beasts. It may be remembered mostly as a notable early role in the McConaughsaince, the amorphous terminology with which we have come to describe Matthew McConaughey’s career reinvention as a “serious” actor of superior craft, and his inscrutable work here is inspiring and wholly effective for the film. At the same time, the attention McConaughey received for the film, while not inaccurate, is somewhat misplaced. Above all, it fails to take into account how talented filmmaker Jeff Nichols uses McConaughey, which is largely as one signpost on his much larger tapestry of Southern woe.
McConaughey, more than anything, is much more a “part of the environment” than a proper character in Nichols’ film. But that’s entirely fitting for a work that blends place and character into one. McConaughey’s drifter, we learn, is relatively new to his chosen lifestyle on the banks of the Mississippi away from human contact, preferring the musty life of a loner to the doldrums of humanity. But it plays like he’s been there forever, even if he exists less in reality than in the mind of a small boy (Tye Sheridan) struggling for a father figure in a nation that can’t separate masculinity from rugged individualism.
It’s a loving, lovely film, with a color palette as washed out as its characters; the whole thing very much aims for the neo-naturalism popular with independent productions these days, following on the heels of Winter’s Bone, but it mixes in just enough ambiguous wide-eyed spiritualism to feel fresh when all is said and done. It’s not perfect, but it’s a snug, snidely little piece that knows enough about humanity to find and circle depth in its intentionally mundane depiction of everyday people. Mud’s name really “gets” the whole film … oily and hurting, the movie is a place, a work of tired physical exhaustion, more than a narrative. When Nichols is fixated on the little details of that place, and how it intermingles and is redefined by the minds of its inhabitants, he’s on fine ground.
Like a great many of the modern pseudo-Malick works of Southern impressionism most popular today, Mud doesn’t quite have the courage of its convictions in the end. At some point, Nichols feels the ever-present urge to introduce a thriller narrative into his film, and the reasons aren’t convincing. Action takes center stage over character, muddying the waters with an uncalled for crime thriller overtone that begs even further whether the film is actually trying to critique individualist conceptions of masculinity. The whole narrative perspective gets seriously mangled and comes up messier than it needs to be to do service to the film’s touching, haunted coming-of-age examination of the intersection of childhood and the male gaze . It is this, ultimately, which keeps the film in the “quite good” category and not the “great” one.
Still, Nichols has place down, and so few films get place these days that it is nice to see his painstaking efforts to that effect. He just needs a better handle on narrative development, or the charisma and commitment to keep narrative out of his films altogether, and he’ll be a filmmaker to remember.