A clean break
Jeff Nichols' films pay homage to a part of the south rarely represented in film. The small towns of Arkansas and Mississippi, where oysters are still delivered door-to-door daily and the local supermarket is called The Piggly Wiggly.
Opening on a young kid with gap teeth and a faded Fugazi T-shirt, Mud doesn't make great strides in distancing itself from hillbilly stereotypes. But then the characters talk, making poetry out of crude childish terms, and Adam Stone, Nichols' returning cinematographer, makes Mississippi's bayous look positively picturesque. Nichols' love for this place and its people is vital to what makes Mud work.
About halfway through Mud, it hit me: this is E.T. Instead of an alien, two kids harbor a fugitive on the run from the law (and more seedy characters). Like E.T., Mud is as much about a kid's maturation as it is about helping a seemingly innocent stranger make a clean brake from the authorities that just don't seem to get it.
Ellis and Neckbone are two middle schoolers who are in search of a place to call their own. That place is a ship that is lodged between a tree's branches after a flood. This will be the place that Ellis will go to when his parents argue. It will also be the place that Neckbone goes to when he gets tired of his uncle's shenanigans -- Michael Shannon for once inspires laughter instead of dread. But, a place of refuge never comes to pass because there is now a stranger in their little makeshift tree house.
Michael McConaughey is a wild man. Even in the softest romantic comedy, he has a look about him that says, "I'm one crazy mother fucker." It's also a look that says, "But I won't hurt you, so come over here and let me tell you some stuff about the Illumanti." And so it is with Mud, a man that is to be busy being a threat to himself to be a threat to anyone else, least of all two boys that seem to think they are invincible (Ellis has a habit of running up and wailing on adults three times his size.)
Mud doesn't want to phone home and Ellis isn't interest in teaching Mud the magic of mass processed candy. Regardless, let me strain this E.T. connection. Ellis is at a fragile age where his optimism is starting to give way to pragmatism. Things like: Love isn't real, couples don't stay together, and life is hard and miserable. Reuniting Mud with his boo ("She's like a dream you don't want to awake from," Mud tells the boys) and helping Mud escape from the clutches of the law is Eliss' last attempt of holding on to his naive ideals.
Nichols' never makes the bond between fugitive and boy explicit, instead favoring a gentler approach that highlights his careful eye as a director. The way Nichols frames and Stone lights up an island at night, or a lake at day, turns Mississippi into a mystical place. Nichols' previous films, Shotgun Stories and Taking Shelter, were claustrophobic, drowning in tension. Mud is a much looser film that handles comedy well -- that is if you find Michael Shannon having sex in a scuba suit, McConaughey getting excited over a can of Beanie Weenie, and kids bringing a fugitive wanted for murder a self-help book funny.
Mud never becomes a story of innocence lost or innocence saved by hanging out and rescuing some weirdo that lives in a boat suspended by tree branches. The purity of Nichols' vision steers Mud's plot lines away from well-weathered territory while still ending in a familiar place. This is a story we've seen before -- and, yeah, there probably are better comparisons than E.T. -- but Nichols brings a grace and style that makes it feel refreshed. Nichols' puts his trust in the sleepy bayous and modest boathouses of Mississippi, letting them guide his story and characters. It's quiet. It's scenic. It's a good kind of boring that tempts me to fall asleep, yet I never do.