Ellis and Neckbone, two teenage boys from Arkansas, find a boat stuck in a tree on a small island. A strange man called Mud claims ownership of the boat and asks the boys to help him meet up with his girlfriend Juniper. Ellis immediately takes a liking to Mud and begins to visit every chance he gets with food and supplies. He will do anything to help the cause of true love even as his parents start fighting and talking about divorce. Mud is a technically well-executed film. Writer/director Jeff Nichols put together a great cast of actors that play well off of each other. The cinematography is beautiful, casting the southern river-side town in a bright white glow of hope and potential. The story has a nice a flow and really layers all the various elements into a cohesive screenplay.
There is a big flaw but it's not particularly damaging to the experience. Jeff Nichols likes the film to linger. There are lots of reaction shots and moments of silence to show off the amazing work being done by Tye Sheridan as Ellis. Sheridan's performance is on the level of Jennifer Lawrence in Winter's Bone or Keisha Castle-Hughes in Whale Rider.
The difference here is that Mud tries so hard to milk every moment that the story starts to stall. The first 40 minutes are really tight and engaging; then everything lingers just a bit too long without any real change in the story. It felt like more should be happening throughout the entire second act but it never did. Everyone was trapped in a really beautiful limbo where nothing changes save a black eye or two.
Mud is otherwise so well-executed that what could be a fatal flaw in a quiet little indie drama is just a minor disappointment. A tighter edit would have made everything feel just a little more important in Mud. There's something to be said for slowing down time when a young man's life becomes very hectic, but the urgency wasn't there to justify the pacing. Ellis goes through a lot of things during the film that bring up really interesting questions about growing up, trust, family, and love. I, personally, just wish it moved just a bit faster.
This is not to say Mud is bad by any stretch of the imagination; it's great. The acting alone makes it the kind of film anyone can become attached to. Reese Witherspoon does her best work since Walk the Line as the troubled girlfriend Juniper, turning a damsel in distress role into something fully-realized and engaging. Matthew McConaughey continues his streak of stunning performances with the lovesick Mud willing to do anything to protect his girlfriend. Mud is surprisingly strong and engaging for being so relaxed and loose in its storytelling.
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