MUD is the latest from Jeff Nichols, whose SHOTGUN STORIES and TAKE SHELTER I’ve been a big not-get-around-to-er of for years. I hear they’re great from people I trust and then I go watch a BLOODSPORT or something. But some day I’m gonna make you guys proud. For now I’ve just seen MUD.
As you can tell by the title, MUD is one of these historical fiction adventures where Dr. Samuel Mudd, imprisoned for aiding John Wilkes Booth after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, has to redeem himself by solving mysteries from his cell on Shark Island using his forensic knowledge and what not. But then there’s a twist where actually he’s not redeeming himself at all, he’s giving medical attention to various bad guys like Jesse James, Jack the Ripper, Count Dracula, etc. And then it’s a triple twist because actually he’s redeeming himself by giving them medical attention but then trying to influence them to be better people. It’s kind of like an underworld doctor story but also redemption, procedural, action, romance, racism, etc.
Actually that’s not what MUD is about, I tricked you into reading the pitch for my new intellectual property, for sale to Hollywood as a movie or TV series or both. Please buy. I don’t need my name on the credits though if it’s all the same to you guys. As we’ve all heard, the MUD that actually exists is real good, and Matthew McConaughey is real good in it. What I had not heard was anything else, like what it was about. And I’m glad, it’s rare to see a movie completely fresh like that. You won’t get that if you keep reading.
(Why am I always telling you not to read my reviews? This kind of defeatist attitude is why some dude from Lost is not playing Samuel Mudd on tv yet)
The main characters of MUD are actually two 14 year old hellraisers, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, THE TREE OF LIFE) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They look younger than the kids in KINGS OF SUMMER and are more likely to throw a punch, including on older, bigger people. The first line of dialogue is “…the shit?” (as in “what the shit?”) and right away they’re riding a motorbike and talking about some girl’s “titties.” And then they’re in a canoe trying to get to the little island they like to explore and get back before the one kid’s dad gets pissed. That’s the age they’re at.
On this island there’s the weirdest thing, there’s a boat stuck in a tree. A small boat, but with a little compartment you can go inside, like a treehouse. And there are Playboys in there. A stash of Playboys is now worthless because of the internet, but before you guys were born the discovery of a stash of Playboys was the most important event in a young man’s life. In many indigenous cultures when a boy turns 13 he is set loose into the desert with only a knife and a small canteen of water and he’s not allowed to return to his people until he’s found the Playboys. And usually he decides just to stay with the Playboys anyway. There’s an old saying I made up that says that when you catch a leprechaun he has to bring you to his pot of gold, and he’s always gonna be real upset about it but after you leave he says “well shit, at least I still have those Playboys I hid in the boat stuck in the tree on that island.”
Anyway the tree-boat is a cool hangout because it has some Playboys and a little bit of food and… wait a minute, somebody’s gotta be living in this thing then. Turns out it’s this guy Mud (McConaughey), who’s hiding out on this island. He doesn’t tell them at first, but he’s a fugitive. It has something to do with a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who he says he loves and was trying to protect, and there’s gangsters involved and Joe Don Baker. Mud becomes their secret friend (not in a child molester way) and they bring him supplies as he tries to fix up the boat. And they start looking into his stories and meeting the people who know him such as Juniper and “the assassin.” And they get mixed up in legitimately dangerous shit.
I noticed pretty early on, oh shit, this is kinda based on Huckleberry Finn, right? I don’t remember everything about that book but I know it’s two precocious little southern kids and they got a canoe and they become friends with a fugitive (escaped slave Jim). And I looked it up and apparently Mark Twain based the character of Huck on a dude he knew named Tom Blankenship, which is the name of the character Sam Shepard plays in this. Ah ha, I broke the code!
But you know what, it’s not just Huckleberry Finn. It’s E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. Ellis is Elliot and Mud is E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Ellis finds him and he’s scared at first but they become friends. The authorities are looking for Mud and he hides him. He brings him Reese’s Pieces (canned beans). He brings him parts to build his communicator (boat). He helps him phone home (brings a note to Juniper). Back at home his parents are going through a divorce. And you know how Elliot kisses Erika Eleniak in class? These kids (and Mud too) have that same kinda fantasy of themselves as the heroes who get the girl by swooping in and rescuing her. In their minds they’re the brave young men coming in to do what’s right and save the helpless dame, in her mind it’s “holy shit, these little kids are gonna get shot.”
I think that’s sort of what it’s about. Mud is a charismatic nut, but he’s full of shit. These kids know that they shouldn’t believe some weirdo criminal they found living in a fuckin treehouse, but they’re young and trusting enough to do it anyway. Society may not have accepted his story but it’s a good story, the type of thing a 14 year old boy wants to believe. Blankenship is the wise one, he tries to tell Mud that he’s a fuckup and the kids to stay away from him, but even he likes Mud enough to get out the ol’ sniper rifle and shoot some guys who are after him when the shit goes down.
This is one of several movies to come out in the last couple years that seems designed to remind us that Matthew McConaughey is pretty awesome. There was that time when Joel Schumacher gave him the lead in A TIME TO KILL out of nowhere, and he was packaged to us as this handsome southern asshole that could star in shitty legal thrillers and romantic comedies where he would take his shirt off. We shoulda known better but alot of us thought that was who he was. I think since then he’s returned to that guy we first saw in DAZED AND CONFUSED, a funny crazy dude with enough natural magnetism to pull his square peg into a Hollywood round hole. He’s turned into a butterfly and he’s spreading his wings.
At the same time, it’s really the two kids that hold this movie. They’re funny and relatable and you’ll probly consider renaming one of your buddies Neckbone. I like the recurring motif of Ellis introducing him and his friend to people, and Neckbone doing a little half-hearted wave when he says his name.
There are alot of themes in this movie that deserve more thought from me, but the simple pleasure of the thing is the very likable, natural performances by these two kids, who seem like real people, and their extra-terrestrial pal, who maybe doesn’t but is entertaining to watch. There aren’t too many movies like this that are about kids but not cleaned up or idealized, not treated as grownups in kid bodies but also they swear like real kids and do stupid shit. It’s about being at an age where you think a girl can fall in love with you if you punch a guy who’s mean to her, but also you have to face the reality of losing the riverboat you grew up in because of your parents’ divorce and whose name it’s registered under and property laws and what not.
I thought it was pretty good. Anyway, give me a call about the MUDD tv show I created and fully own, thanks NBC.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.