Mud aired at Cannes Film Festival 2012, making Nichols the youngest filmmaker up for the 2012 Palme d’Or. As Nichols’ third film, Mud follows his first two critically acclaimed motion pictures, Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011). All three films are set in the southern states of America where Nichols is from.
Following the unlikely friendship between two fourteen-year olds, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), and fugitive Mud (Matthew Mcconaughey), the story begins as the boys search for a boat that had become suspended high up in the trees. The trapped boat, cradled in the branches of an old tree, resides as dysfunctional, and this strange visual conjures up a sense of wonder and surreality.
During this excursion into the remote Mississippi wilderness, the two boys meet the wildly isolated Mud who, after claiming the boat as his, strikes up a deal with the boys. This deal soon turns into friendship, with Mud heavily relying on the boys to provide him with food before asking their help in reuniting him with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). These favors set out by Mud tangle the boys up in his life, especially Ellis who forms an attachment to the outcast.
As the story unravels, it turns out that Mud is on the run after killing a man, while trying to protect Juniper. Fuelled by love, Mud’s actions are justifiable in the sentimental eyes of Ellis, who further commits himself to reuniting Mud and Juniper. The magical and childlike quality conjured at the beginning of the film is immediately grounded by Mud’s admission to the murder, and the severity of the situation is furthered by the family of the murdered man’s desire for revenge. Yet the magic does not disappear entirely, as the story is told through Ellis, and his naivety and tendency to romanticize lifts the more sombre moments.
Initially charming, Mud’s character deepens with the introduction of Tom (Sam Shepard), who raised him. Through this older figure, Mud’s mystique is more clearly revealed and Tom’s presence provides substance to the overarching story. It is with Nichols’ gentle interjection of characters such as Tom that the story unravels with slow, considered timing. Even when the film builds up to a gun fight, Nichols executes the scenes with a thoughtfulness that avoids excess.
The gentle nature of this film, the slow pace and calculated unfolding of events, give room for relationships to breathe and develop, and for the expansion of Ellis’ character as he teeters on the verge of adulthood. The timing of the film balances perfectly with the aesthetics. Open expanses of the gray-green river, the impenetrable forest and the small towns are portrayed without any motive, other than drawing upon their characteristics. Nichols uses these different landscapes to signify tensions, build atmosphere and explore relationships. The town for instance, ripe with plotting bounty hunters, has completely different associations than the simplified scenes shot on Ellis’ house boat, or the wilderness that Mud inhabits.
Nichols uses this effective visual backdrop to draw out relationships between the characters, especially Ellis and his father on their house boat, and the pivotal affinity between Mud and Ellis on the island. This interweaving of masculine roles, relations and ages aids in individual character development and allows the ‘father figure’ to take different forms throughout the film.
Mud is an aesthetically beautiful film which captures the essence of the southern landscape. Nichols’ use of the Mississippi as the main protagonist draws attention to its strong presence within southern life, along with its multifaceted personality and at times magical quality. The film is layered with an exploration of male figures and their individual points of transition. Mud is a soulful story of love, friendship and romance set in the authentic south.