Described by many as a “‘coming of age” story, Jeff Nichols’ latest film, Mud follows two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) who travel up river to discover the wreckage of a boat that had been lodged high up in the trees after a storm. Believing it to be empty, the boys decide to claim it as their own. The boat takes on an imaginary significance throughout the film, recalling perhaps the aircraft discovered by the children in Lord of the Flies who have themselves to undergo a similarly difficult transition into adulthood. The boat is already inhabited by the fugitive, Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is wanted for killing his girlfriend’s violent ex-lover. Mud is a deeply flawed character who believes in the mythic persona he has created for himself. Ellis’ parents are going through a divorce and Mud becomes an unwitting father figure and role model for the boys as they agree to help him to escape from the island with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis struggles to understand the complexities of the relationships around him: through his time with Mud, he is able to learn how to deal with the setbacks which is a necessary part of growing up.
Cinematographer Adam Stone (who also worked with Jeff Nichols on Take Shelter and Shotgun Diaries) has used natural light to create a sense of transience, reflecting the period of adolescent change that the boys are undergoing. The Mississippi setting depicting a small community of dilapidated houseboats on the banks of river is contrasted with the nearby town and local Walmart store , giving the impression that this way of life is under threat and subject to change. Nichols is deeply influenced by the culture surrounding the Old West, and also the Westerns play in forming our understanding of masculine identity. This is, of course, a common theme in the work of American playwright, Sam Shepard, whose work also explores the breakdown of these myths and the psychology behind father-son relationships in dramas such as Buried Child and Fool for Love. Nichols’ decision to cast Shepard in the role of Tom Blankenship – or “the assassin” as Mud mythologises him – is an explicit reference to how popular culture, and in particular film and theatre, has impacted upon his work. It is possible to draw parallels between Mud and the character of Chance Wayne from Tennessee Williams’ play Sweet Bird of Youth; in the latter, Wayne returns to his home town to track down his first love, Heavenly, and the former, Ellis, looks for his first girlfriend, May Pearl. To further the comparison between the two characters, both Juniper and Heavenly are unable to conceive; Juniper has a tattooed image of the swallow on her hand, a symbol of freedom and loss of innocence, which also links the two portrayals. Mud does not meet the same end as Wayne in Sweet Bird of Youth but there are more subtle instances of emasculation in the film.
Although Mud is quite sentimental in its appropriation of the conventional coming of age plot, Nichols’ film is beautifully told. Also, because Mud draws on the work of great American playwrights and also the recent revival of the Westerns in films such as True grit, it is just as nostalgic about films depicting the old way of life as it is of the way of life itself. In this however, the film is a departure from other less self-conscious films set in the South.