"Mud," American writer/director Jeff Nichols' underwhelming follow-up to the masterfully visceral "Take Shelter," is a shallow and contrived coming of age story. While both 'Shelter' and "Shotgun Stories," Nichols' promising debut feature, explore their respective characters' motives and emotions, "Mud" instead offers pat sentiments and bland bathos.
While his parents talk about separating, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, one of the boys in Malick's "The Tree Of Life"), an adolescent native of DeWitt, Arkansas, helps Mud (an accomplished performance from Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive, reunite with his lover. Ellis isn't initially sure why he confides in Mud. But ultimately, Ellis sticks by the titular Byronic redneck in a predictably vain attempt to understand his parents’ break-up and why self-evident displays of affection cannot be taken at face value. Every ounce of mystery and promise established in the first half hour of "Mud" evaporates once it becomes clear that Nichols is more earnestly interested in using Mud to disabuse Ellis of his romantic ideals. "Mud" isn't a dud because it's more easy-going or more bloated than Nichols's previous films, though it is both of those things. It’s a misfire because unlike Nichols’s previous narratives, “Mud” just isn't as well-conceived or even that theoretically rewarding.
Ellis spends much of “Mud” ignoring the obvious ways that the people he cares about don’t conform to his expectations. He ignores repeated warnings from people like concerned neighbor Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who insists Mud isn’t the good person Ellis thinks he is. And with the help of his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), Ellis decides to help Mud reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), Mud’s fair-weather lover. Juniper is, in other words, not the “pretty” and loyal person Mud makes her out to be, either. In that sense, it’s essential for Ellis’s growth as a character for him to reluctantly see for himself just how unfaithful Juniper is (a bar scene that establishes this point is especially tedious).
The same is true of Ellis’s clichéd and crassly manipulative relationship with May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), an older teenager who’s just not as into Ellis as he is into her. At first, Ellis just takes it as a given that he has momentarily impressed May Pearl because he decked a senior who tried to push her around. But as we immediately see, May Pearl deliberately doesn’t answer Ellis when he asks her to be his girlfriend, preferring instead to respond with a kiss on the lips. So again, for Ellis to grow up, he’s got to see that a punch in the mouth is not the same thing as being chivalrous and that a kiss on the lips is not a confession of love.
Worse still, the real reason why Ellis needs to learn these lessons from everyone but his parents is both the most disappointing and the most intentionally under-developed subplot in “Mud.” In the film’s introductory scene, Ellis’s parents Senior and Mary Lee (the equally exceptional duo of Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) start to fight while he sneaks out to meet Neckbone. Senior and Mary Lee are the most interesting characters in the film, especially since they may disagree about how to discipline their son but are united in their flinty affection for him. But since Ellis is apparently only able to become sufficiently disillusioned by proxy in “Mud,” Ellis’s parents are only supporting characters at best. So while they are the most fully realized characters in “Mud,” Nichols’s film unfortunately isn't (directly) about them.
The same is true of Neckbone’s uncle Galen (the sorely wasted Michael Shannon), a womanizing loner who makes his living by digging up clams. When Galen is introduced, Neckbone is told by Galen’s latest conquest not to grow up to be like his irresponsible and ungentlemanly uncle. But as we see, Galen is actually one of the most sensitive, though hardly perceptive, characters in the film. In time, Galen notices Neckbone and Ellis’s trips to visit Mud and gets worried. And he even tries to gently steer the duo towards telling someone they trust about Mud. But because he’s not a burly, mysterious, conflicted antihero like Mud, Galen’s also not the guy Ellis learns his lesson from. “Mud” is as unmoving as it is because it doesn’t aspire to be anything other than a competent anti-fairy tale in which the paint-by-number morals are enforced by equally obvious main protagonists. [C]