Mud: The Adventures of Ellis and Neckbone

May 3, 2013

By Kevin Hyde
May 3, 2013

One part coming-of-age tale, another part fugitive crime story, Mud, the new film from Southern writer and director Jeff Nichols, is a thoroughly enjoyable, Twainian yarn set along the mighty Mississippi River. Nichols, 34, whose previous credits include the gripping Shotgun Tales and Take Shelter, shows us once again that he is one of the most interesting young filmmakers today with this excellent, modern-day homage to Huckleberry Finn.

Mud is carried by two teenagers, the remarkable Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, who are supported ably by a perfect cast of veteran stars and character actors highlighted by a wonderful performance from Matthew McConaughey in the title role. Sheridan plays Ellis, a 14-year-old who lives on a makeshift houseboat with his parents. In the opening scene, he sneaks away just before dawn to meet up with his best friend, Neckbone (Lofland), a foul-mouthed river rat wearing a Fugazi t-shirt. Neckbone takes Ellis to an island in the Mississippi where he has found a boat suspended high in a tree—presumably deposited there by Hurricane Katrina years ago. 

As the boys begin to plot how they can remove and take possession of the boat, they learn that someone is living in it. That’s Mud (McConaughey), or the Jim character if you cotton to my Huck Finn comparison. Ellis and Neckbone learn that Mud has been hiding out on the island, evading the police and bounty hunters after he killed the abusive boyfriend of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the long-time object of his affection.

Mud, who is originally from the area and knows the land and waters well, is waiting to rendezvous with Juniper, whom he calls his one true love. He’s also running very low on food and needs some help. In Ellis and Neckbone, he finds two willing and competent accomplices.

Throughout it all, we also see Ellis have his own brush with true love—for him first love—as well as deal with growing problems at home. His mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), is leaving his father, Ellis, Sr., a hard-working, country-wise laborer played by one of my favorite film actors, Ray McKinnon. Mary Lee needs a change and wants to move to town. Since the house boat came from her side of the family, it will be removed and likely destroyed by the River Authority.

A man is supposed to be in charge of his own affairs, Ellis, Sr., tells his son. But I ain’t worked it that way.

Nichols, a native Arkansan, knows the gritty music of Southern-inflected, country dialogue, and the actors play the notes to great effect. The terrific supporting cast also includes Sam Shepard, as a mysterious neighbor on the river; Michael Shannon, as Neckbone’s carefree uncle and guardian; and the long-lost Joe Don Baker, as the revenge-minded father of the man Mud killed.

As the bounty hunters close in, and at the same time Ellis learns some hard truths about how true love is often one-sided, the movie comes to an exciting and ultimately satisfying climax.

As Mud, McConnaghey reminds us that there is much more to him than great bone structure and a sculpted physique. On the heels of acclaimed, award-winning turns in films like Bernie, Killer Joe and Magic Mike, he finally seems poised to become an important actor after too much time wasted in forgettable romantic comedies and other banal Hollywood fare. I always thought he could be this generation’s Paul Newman.

But the real pleasures of Mud can be seen in its rustic depiction of river life, something that Samuel Clemens romanticized in the 19th century. What is it about that big, muddy river that captures the American imagination? What freedom it seems to represent. What rugged individualism it seems to offer, and then demand in return.

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Kevin Hyde

Kevin Hyde is a freelance writer who has worked as a reporter for daily and weekly newspapers, edited regional and national magazines, written on pop culture for an international newspaper as well as several local, alternative newspapers. He can be reached at [email protected].

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