My Name is Mud

04/24/2013 4:00 AM |

Mud
Directed by Jeff Nichols

In the opening minutes of director Nichols’s third feature, his first since Take Shelter, a modern-day Tom Sawyer leaves his family’s houseboat at the crack of dawn to the strains of crickets and parental bickering; meets up with his Huck; and steers a motorboat into the widest branch of the Mississippi. Landing on a wooded island, the pair stumble upon a boat lodged high up a tree—and, within it, Matthew McConaughey’s titular stowaway, who spends his days pining over a fickle love and hiding from a shady past.

Mud wants the same things as the kids who discover him: a woman to call a girlfriend, and a place to call a home. The film considers both desires in tandem, but ends up so focused on the desiring men themselves that we’re left with an incomplete, superficial understanding of whatever they actually desire. Which, at least in the case of love, is completely appropriate, since neither Mud nor his new pal Ellis can conceive of the objects of their affection except incompletely and superficially. They pine over, long for, and vent at their beloveds, but the women themselves barely get a word in: we never see them except through the eyes of their admirers, either as long-legged angels or heartless betrayers.

In the same way, for a film that places such a high premium on home as an ideal, Mud rarely suggests what it’s like to feel attached to a place; it rarely imagines the Mississippi region as anything more than a catalog of quirks. There are plenty of recognizable deep-South signifiers—ramshackle houses and casually drawled y’alls—but not much signified. The characters do understand, at least, that their home is defined by more than well-affected accents, Walmarts, poisonous snakes, cut-off jean shorts, houseboats, and nicknames like “Neckbone.” But they can only be as richly developed as the places they inhabit—full of intriguing details, but somehow centerless, unbounded, unmoored. It’s only in those rare moments when Mud places its characters in the service of its setting, rather than the other way around, that the film really opens up: I never felt closer to Ellis than in the pair of scenes that find him riding in the back of his dad’s pickup, watching his town’s gas stations and diners vanish into the dusty late-afternoon air.

Opens April 26

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