Stand by Mud
Less a spectacular train wreck than a sad disappointment, Jeff Nichols’ Mud is a movie of great earnestness and little imagination: a surprisingly trite and simplistic coming-of-age story in which predictability trumps everything else, including much-needed sentiment. Just like the director’s previous effort (the sublimely filmed, if ultimately shallow, angst-fest Take Shelter), Mud is also concerned with a possible break-up of a marriage as filtered by the mind of a susceptible member of a family. Whereas Michael Shannon’s Curtis projected his fear of marital separation into a series of apocalyptic visions, the new movie’s protagonist – a feisty fourteen-year-old Alabama boy named Ellis (Tye Sheridan) – escapes into a much more welcoming fantasy.
The boy, rightly sensing some tension between his parents, latches onto a newly-found adult pal in the person of Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding in a boat surreally left atop of a tree after a recent flood. Mud escapes justice after having killed his infidelity-prone girlfriend’s latest lover, and she’s waiting for him in a dingy motel so that they can elope together. For Ellis, Mud’s situation has a tremendous appeal – a pint-sized romantic that he is, he imagines Mud’s devotion to be the true love so acutely absent between his folks. He does all he can to help out his new idol in making the boat usable again (by hook as well as by crook), and finds an additional incentive when he meets Mud’s girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who seems to him an embodiment of fragile innocence under pressure (crush ensues).
Mud is all about letting go of illusions and assuming responsibility. Unfortunately, Ellis’ gradual disenchantment is portrayed in a painstakingly obvious manner. Nichols takes his time and hedges his bets, too: virtually nothing is left unsaid, and the crucial plot points are so heavily underlined that they all but become parodies of themselves. Some of the crucial scenes of disillusionment are stretched out beyond measure until they lost their impact, others embarrass with completely superfluous dialogue.
The film – while way too long at its current 130 minutes – certainly doesn’t lack for acting talent and overall technical competence. Too cerebral to feel heartfelt, too earnest to seem inspired, Mud comes dangerously close to being a watered-down faux-John Sayles movie, in which intentions replace actual experience. Nichols is too smart to aim for genuine, heart-tugging mush of the Stand By Me variety, and yet not detached enough to bathe his movie in a sense of true strangeness. It’s a shame to see that gifted filmmaker succumb to generic weaknesses (that were only latent in Take Shelter) and deliver a movie that doesn’t lack for ambition but ends up merely passable.