Jeff Nichols’ follow-up to his apocalyptic Take Shelter has a lot of interesting elements, but I ended up finding it less than the sum of its parts. The story begins with two Arkansas boys taking a motorboat to an island in the Mississippi, where they find a bigger boat up in a tree. This is boy’s adventure paradise, except it turns out that somebody is living in the treed boat. This is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is hiding out on the island for mysterious reasons. He enlists the help of the boys, Ellis and Neckbone.
It’s really Ellis’ story. It’s a coming-of-age story of sorts, but melded with other genres, including romance and thriller. One of the problems I had with the film is that I didn’t think Nichols had a very sure hand as he moved between genres. Everything felt curiously flat, with the romance not very romantic and the thriller not very thrilling. What keeps it going is a fine sense of humor and an interesting cast of characters, as well as a strong sense of location in the backwater Arkansas town and its riverside poverty row.
In thinking about why I ultimately felt dissatisfied with the movie, one thing that sticks out is the characterization of women. The three main women in the film are Ellis’ mother, Mary Lee, who is unhappy with her marriage and wanting a change; May Pearl, who is an older girl that Ellis falls for; and Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who is the undeserving object of Mud’s ancient romantic yearnings. All of these women are portrayed in terms of how men feel about them, and the mother is the only one who seems to have any depth of character. The coming-of-age aspect of the story centers around Ellis learning that women can break your heart, but, you know, life goes on. The sense that this is some kind of secret, hard-earned wisdom amongst men seemed pretty alien to this old bachelor.
Well, the theater where I saw this was packed, and the crowd seemed to be into it, so maybe I’m out of step on this one. The story certainly had its meandering pleasures (Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s weird, womanizing, pearl-diving uncle was a treat), but it just didn’t cohere for me. (Insert “muddy” pun here.)