Trying to decide what movie to see last week, my friend and I were left with few options. I am not a Trekkie. I don’t do superheroes. I love Robert Downey Jr., but not when he ‘s covered in iron. And while I adore Jay Gatsby, I cannot bring myself to watch his demise for a third time in three weeks.
I can’t handle that Gatsby has more beautiful shirts in his bedroom-within-a-closet than I could fit in my entire house.
I can’t handle that I’m attracted to Tom Buchanan even though he’s an absolute tool.
I can’t handle that a poorly timed summer release has cost Leonardo DiCaprio his long-overdue Oscar.
I can’t handle that I am so much like Gatsby, always reaching for the unattainable green light CGIed at the end of the dock.
We settled on “Mud” starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon (well, not starring Reese Witherspoon). I knew nothing about this movie. I presumed it was a small-scale indie getting a (sort of) wide release because of the names attached. Cinematic offerings are generally devoid of intellect in the summer months, so I was hungry for even the tiniest morsel of something truly good.
Last summer I went into “Beasts of the Sothern Wild” knowing absolutely nothing and emerged drowning in a sea of tears. The masterful meditation on nature and youth took me by surprise, and from the first shots of “Mud”—two young boys riding down a river—it seemed the two films might be similar.
The boys, Ellis and Neckbone (yes, that is his name), stop on what appears to be a deserted island and climb up to what appears to be an abandoned boat hoisted in the branches of a tree.
A boat in a tree. How did this boat get to the top of this tree? Who put it there? Did the person swim off the island? Did this person drown? Did this person disappear into the ground? These questions do not enter the boys’ minds as they rummage through porn magazines in the magical boat.
I can already tell that the five-year-old girl in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is smarter than both of these boys combined, and they’re more than twice her age. The actors, Tye Sheridan as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, are strong, but the same cannot be said for the material they’re given. Things are going downhill quickly.
Suddenly Ellis notices a bag of recently purchased food in the boat and exclaims, “Somebody lives here!”
So they leave. Not because they’ve just broken into someone’s boat, but because “it takes twice as long to ride upstream” and they can’t be late getting home. Oh. Okay.
But then—surprise! They find eerie boot prints in the sand and discover the mysterious Boat Man standing on the shore, eyeing their boat. Boat Man is Matthew McConaughey, and his name is actually Mud.
Mud, as a name, lies somewhere between Boat Man and Neckbone in terms of plausibility. We never learn why he is called Mud, but covered-in-dirt-because-why-bother-to-bathe-in-the-river McConaughey lives up to the name. Though he makes a valiant effort to disappear into his character through all the grime and sloppy speech, he is still Matthew McConaughey, gorgeous as ever, much more so here than in last year’s Magic Mike, a movie better-suited for his attractiveness.
We are introduced to Mud via a technique used too often in writer-director Jeff Nichols’s screenplay: putting together characters who’ve never met and throwing buckets of exposition at the audience. With no apparent creativity, we are spoon-fed character backstory and description, left with nothing to glean for ourselves about the people onscreen. Intellect? What intellect?
Mud asks the kids to bring him back food, and they do. They don’t ask him why he’s on the island, how he plans to get back to the mainland, or why they should help him; they just accept a promise for his boat-in-a-tree in exchange for their assistance. Sometimes Ellis rides out to Mud by himself in the middle of the night, which doesn’t appear any less stupid in the movie than it sounds here. We’re meant to infer that Ellis is endearingly innocent, but it’s difficult to root for a protagonist who just seems dumb.
Not only is a boat Ellis’s main source of transportation, but he lives on one, too. The houseboat is a major component of his father’s livelihood, but his mother, who technically owns the property, wants it torn down so she can move into town because she “needs a change.” Literally, that’s all the justification she gives for breaking up her family. Ellis expresses his angst by slamming doors and punching walls, all the while riding off to visit Mud, unbeknownst to his so-important parents, in order to escape his crumbling home life.
Mud is far from a stable influence on this child. In fact, Mud is wanted for murder. This surprises Ellis, but I wouldn’t call it a spoiler because, hello, the man is hiding away on an island.
Don’t worry, Mud did it all for Juniper, the love of his life. Mind you, her story is awful and tragic and Mud had every right to defend her; but murder is a bit extreme, and murder causes other people to want to murder you. Specifically the father of the man you murdered, who is wealthy and powerful and scary and says things like, “Let’s have a prayer circle for the death of my son’s killer.”
Neckbone is skeptical about helping Mud escape the police. This redeems his character a bit because it demonstrates that, unlike Ellis, he has some semblance of a brain in his head. Ellis is determined to help Mud find safety. He respects Mud. He idolizes him. Most importantly, he thinks anything done in the name of love is worth fighting for. He agrees to bring Juniper to the island so she and Mud can escape together, and Neckbone helps because he wants to protect Ellis from, you know, death.
Never mind that Juniper is only onscreen for three seconds. Never mind that she is Academy Award-winner Reese Witherspoon and has about as many lines as a mime in a silent movie. Never mind that her character is so underdeveloped it’s impossible to sympathize with her. And never mind that she doesn’t actually care about Mud’s feelings at all.
Ellis has jumped on the love train, in the name of Mud’s love for Juniper, in the name of his own love for a high school girl way too old for him (I can’t even bring myself to delve deeper into that awful subplot), and in the name of the love lost between his parents Everything is about love. Love. Nothing else matters. Not even when you’re being followed by murderers.
In this sense, Ellis reminds me of Jay Gatsby. How come I so strongly identify with Gatsby, yet I can’t connect with Ellis at all? Gatsby’s one great love, Daisy Buchanan, has broken his heart, but Ellis is far too immature to know what love means. Though the adolescent has never felt real love himself, he is willing to put his life in harm’s way. We just don’t care. Gatsby has earned his delusional dreams. Ellis and his uneven screenplay have not.
“Mud” is now playing in select theatres nationwide.