Movie Review Rewind: Mud (2012)

Brandon Vick flips the calendar back to 2012 for a look at Jeff Nichols' Mud on this edition of Movie Review Rewind.

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Mud is a terrific film with a constant feeling of paranoia, mystery, heartache, and pure excitement running through its veins. The adventure thriller offers up a gritty Southern dirtiness and puts focus on a part of life that may be unfamiliar territory for a lot of us. The film feels old-fashioned and I mean that in the best possible sense. As the third film from director Jeff NicholsMud is about right and wrong, the struggle and suffering we endure, and the consequences of our own personal choices. But if you strip it down to its bare essentials, it is above all else about love and the effect it has on each and every one of us.

For anyone who has seen Take Shelter, you know about Nichols’ talent and the confidence he has in his filmmaking along with his excellent storytelling. So now with his latest film, he once again proves his knowledge and great understanding of not only the material, but presenting in a way that resonates with the audience. Mud starts out as just a boy on a big adventure and you cannot help but think Nichols was inspired at least a little bit by The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. However, I am almost positive Finn never had an adventure quite like this.

Along with the adventure comes the dangers of the unknown and you feel it from the very beginning of the film. Nichols does not shy away from the harsh realities of life. Every character and relationship is either bruised, fractured, or completely broken. Mud is about real people dealing with real issues and it can get real ugly real quick.

Nichols is a young filmmaker who looks like an old pro when you see his films. He is a force to be reckoned with because of his ability to hand-craft such beautiful, personal stories about pieces of Americana. Take Shelter and Mud are the reasons I look forward to what he does next and, at the same time, the reason I need to see his debut film, Shotgun Stories.

The story of Mud starts out with Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best bud Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two teens boys who live along the Mississippi River, setting out to an island where there is a boat suspended high in the trees that is soon going to be their secret hideaway. However, someone else found it first. Ellis and Neckbone cross paths with a man known only as Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud looks rough and dirty and definitely smells like trouble. Yet he needs the boys help and while Neckbone is hesitant, Ellis feels the need to simply because he believes it is the right thing to do.

Through the process of making frequent visits to give him food, the boys find out why Mud is on the island and planning an escape. He confesses to them that he killed a man in Texas and is on the run from the police who want to capture him and bounty hunters who want to kill him. But he cannot leave without the love his life Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) so Ellis agrees to help him get his girl back and have a chance to live happily ever after.

The supporting cast is just as tremendous as the leads and with names like Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, and Sarah Paulson, you can’t go wrong. But the entire film is shown through the eyes of Ellis who is young and finding himself swept up in the fantasy of the power of love. Unfortunately, Ellis does not see much of that around him. The only time his parents seem to talk is when they are arguing so it’s easy to see their marriage is crumbling down around Ellis.

And he has also found himself in love with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) and does all he can to impress her in order to get the opportunity to call her his girlfriend. It is easy to see why Ellis wants to help Mud reunite with Juniper because this is his shot to see a love he can believe in and see with his own eyes that it truly does exist.

Ellis is a big character with an even bigger heart and young Sheridan completely embraces the emotion and innocence of a boy living out his childhood while trying to understand the world around him. For such a young actor, his range is unbelievable. He goes toe-to-toe with McConaughey and does not back down for one second. It is a powerhouse performance no matter what, but at his age, it makes it that much more impressive.

I am still not quite sure what has gotten into McConaughey, but I sure do like it. He had one hell of a year last year and after seeing his mesmerizing performance in this, there are no signs of him slowing down. Mud is a man of mystery and you cannot help but be suspicious of him and his intentions. Yet he forms a strong bond with the boys, especially Ellis. Him and Neckbone become the only ones he can trust and they are the only ones who believe in him.

Mud is not a bad guy. It’s a case of a guy who has made some bad decisions and is fully aware of the consequences that follow them. With the boys, he shows his merciful and sympathetic side, and even his love for Juniper seems courageous at first glance. Through it all though, it is the presence and gusto of McConaughey that captivates the audience and has us rooting for him even after knowing about all the damage he has done.

Mud takes you back to when you were just a kid during a time when you thought you had it all figured out.


Nichols creates a staggering coming-of-age story that is full of heart and while every person in the film have their scars, they search for the strength to survive. Mud is an engaging, suspenseful, and richly satisfying film about life and love and how there is nothing simple about either one. It’s a helluva thing. A helluva thing.

Brandon Vick is a member of The Music City Film Critics’ Association and the Southeastern Film Critics Association, the resident film critic of the SoBros Network, and the star of The Vick’s Flicks Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @SirBrandonV and be sure to search #VicksFlicks for all of his latest movie reviews.

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