Highway 61 revisited: Mud ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 27, 2013)


There’s a lot of mystery in Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ modern-day Tom and Huck adventure-cum-swamp noir…not the least of which is how a 14 year-old Arkansas river rat named Neckbone came to be in possession of a Fugazi t-shirt (these are the little throwaway details in movies that keep me up nights-I’m pretty sure I need medication). However, that isn’t the central mystery; this tale is chuck-full of characters with Dark Secrets murkier than the black waters of the Mississippi that burble and roil throughout it.

The aforementioned Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) plays second fiddle to our young protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan). Ellis and Neckbone, who grew up together in a clannish riverbank neighborhood, kill time exploring their environs in a motorboat. While scouting a tiny island in the middle of the Mississippi, they happen upon a boat that has been stranded high up in a tree (now there’s a mystery).

Assuming that the wreck is abandoned (and being 14 year-old boys) they declare dubsies and agree to keep it a secret between the two of them. However, further exploration reveals dismaying evidence that “someone” may already have laid claim to this one-of-a-kind tree house. When they return to their own boat, fresh footprints indicate that while they were up in the tree, “someone” else was also doing some recon. Enter “Mud” (Matthew McConaughey).

Although somewhat gaunt and feral in appearance, Mud turns out to be disarmingly laid-back and soft-spoken in countenance. He is also quite the raconteur, soon regaling the impressionable lads with his tale of woe. While it may appear that he’s been living by his wits on this veritable desert island for an indeterminate amount of time, it seems that he has but recently returned to the area with a Special Purpose: to reunite with his long-time ladylove, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).

So why doesn’t he simply make the 20-minute boat ride into town and hook up with her? Well, there’s this slight hiccup. You see, since they were last together, Juniper left him for this other guy, who turned out to be an evil, physically abusive dirt bag. So Mud ended up sort of, well, killing him. And now, the guy’s congenitally felonious family (headed by veteran hillbilly heavy Joe Don Baker) is hot on his trail and gunning for vengeance. So Mud has to lay low. Despite the preponderance of red flags, Ellis and Neckbone offer to help Mud in his righteous quest.

What ensues is a hybrid of Stand by Me and Whistle Down the Wind, with a touch of Tennessee Williams (the presence of a startlingly grizzled Sam Shepard lends additional Southern Gothic cred). I also got the feeling that Nichols was striving to create a sort of mythic American folk tale, in the mold of Glen Pitre’s woefully underrated 1986 gem Belizaire the Cajun; particularly in the way he immerses you in a unique regional subculture, which in this case appears to have changed little since the days of Mark Twain.

While the director’s reach may exceed his grasp at times (due in part to his busy mishmash of character study, family melodrama, coming-of-age tale, love story, mythic folk tale and suspense thriller), the strong sense of place (Adam Stone’s cinematography artfully captures the sultry atmosphere of a torpid backwater), compelling music score (by David Wingo) and excellent performances add up to a perfect Sunday matinee movie.

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