I’ve seen this movie before, surely. It’s clear in my mind, though I can’t remember the name. My mind is nearly blocked of all other thoughts of Mud (2012) by this single overbearing sense of déjà vu. Nearly. Lucky for me and my personal desire to reach 800 words, there is another bright thought that shines through that murky fog. You cannot know what movie you’re walking into. Trailers are misleading. Directors change their ways. Writers take different jobs. Reviewers, you simply cannot trust for taste. Except for me, obviously. Going into that theater is like jumping into the Mississippi. It’s dark, vast, and usually colder than you’d like. It’s never the same twice. And you’re never sure if you’re walking out with a rough pearl or a cottonmouth bite.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live on the Arkansas shore of the Big River. Neckbone heard from his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) about a boat that landed in a tree on a river island during a big flood. When the boys investigate, as they obviously would, the come across a bounty of great childhood finds. They find the boat floating in a tree, stable and devoid of useful parts, they find a stack of Penthouse magazines, and they find a stranger with crosses nailed into his heel. The cross-heeled man is called Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who is waiting on the island for someone to arrive. Mud is a superstitious man with the crosses in his heels to ward off bad spirits, a shirt of protection, bonfires to do something similar, and a tattoo of a snake that raps from his back around his arm and up to his hand. There’s one thing he needs, though, and that’s food. Getting food is the beginning of their adventure of discovery and other such abstract nouns.
What struck me and then dominated my experience was the idea that this movie is so conventional. The man who wrote and directed Take Shelter (2011), a great film which I have unaccountably not reviewed, Jeff Nichols, is similarly credited here. The cinematographer for Mud, Adam Stone, is the same. The man behind the soundtrack, David Wingo, is the same. And yet the stories are nothing alike, they look nothing alike, and they sound nothing alike. Michael Shannon is a brooding, possibly psychotic man in Take Shelter is a bounding, boyish pearl diver in Mud. Every similarity to Malick which pervaded Take Shelter (and made it great), the long shots, dwelling on nature and limited dialogue is exchanged for bright images, quick cuts and clear and obvious dialogue. “Why are you doing this?” Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) asks, with hand outstretched to the audience, presenting this smelly gift. “Because y’all are in love,” says Ellis, delivering his own gift of theme like his many unthinking right-hooks that he delivers throughout. So conventional.
A part of that is my sense that I’ve seen this movie before. The crosses in the shoes, what is that from? …Googling… The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). That’s a nice tag for the Mississippi River, I’ll allow it. The first he sees of them are muddy prints. Okay, that’s exactly how it happens in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but it’s a good image and I’ll allow that, too. The government coming after the boathouse. The curmudgeon across the river. Befriending a criminal. Becoming a man. Parallel, intergenerational love stories. I’ve been here before. I could tag some of those, but I just don’t have the time. Is this a problem? Is there something wrong with coming back to oft-tread themes without having anything new to say about them? No, I don’t think so. I’m probably in a minority by consciously holding that view, but I do hold it. Transplanting a good theme is like transplanting a good plant. It looks basically the same, but it’s still good and now you have two. But I’d like to be prepared for it.
It’s such a strange thing that Mud was promoted as if it were an indy film. You’ve got the indy director. Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, and McConaughey are either defined by independent films or are currently involved in many of them. Take a look at the trailer. Is this the trailer of a movie not dissimilar to Stand by Me (1986)? Because that’s what it is. There were a number of moments near the end of the film that reminded me of the movie I expected. There were shots of clouds passing by, the river lapping at the muddy shores of the island, and tracking shots over the face of the muddy river. Oh, there it is. The thoughtful half. That was about two minutes of screentime. Maybe I shouldn’t have seen To the Wonder (2013). I don’t know.
Is this a bad movie? No. The performances of all but Witherspoon, who was severely mediocre, were very good. I have a particular love for Sarah Paulson and the sweethearts she portrays and there is not one ounce of disappointment in her role in Mud. The boys are very good. They aren’t earth-shattering like River Phoenix in Stand By Me, but they were solid attempts. The story, as I said, is conventional and therefore entertaining. But I’m going to have to go again with the right expectation if I’m going to be able to judge this movie correctly. For now, all I’m left with is the sense that Arkansas is bright, muddy, and filled with gritty love stories.