The coming-of-age film, as defined by over a century of example, seems to necessitate certain elemental constants, not the least of which appears to be the need to illustrate a child’s entry into adult consciousness through surviving the threat of, or being subjected to, acts of violence. This was certainly true of the cinematic adaptation of Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”, the de facto classical standard for all movies of this type, where a threatened disruption to the delicate aura of a child’s sense of security is as formative an influence, according to the ruminations of Scout (it is important to remember the story is narrated as a remembrance, subject to the filter of contented nostalgia balanced with the effects of potentially scarring events), as is the awareness borne of maturation that moral courage is the core of an honorable human being: as exampled by her father. Positive parental examples are not as universal in this film type, though the influence of the adult anxieties as a mirror those of the child’s (especially adolescent) is an imperative genre trope; so often is the child’s perception of normal life, which afford them the naivete of innocent security, ruptured by turmoil incurred by those most accountable to the child for their emotional well being. If there is a general definition to the coming-of-age film is it specific to the necessary separation from the completely innocent mind.
“Mud” is such a film, in which a surfeit of incident is shoveled into a particularly narrow range of time to impress a dramatically escalated sense of abbreviated maturation on the central adolescent character, the fourteen-year-old Ellis. This, again, is characteristic of the genre: an inordinate quantity of events conveniently unfolding simultaneously which create a natural bridge from curious observation to formative experience. The narrative core of the film, the budding relationship between the mysterious fugitive vagrant Mud (Matthew McConaughey), Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), develops tentatively at first, though the three characters are quick to establish a mutual trust and caring for each other: a secretive though harmonious society in miniature that affords Ellis an opportunity to assert a budding sense of responsibility, while remaining frustrated over the continuing fracturing of his home situation: represented by simmering yet intensifying tensions affirming the incompatibility between his parents whose years of frustration are manifesting into fractious territories, and the very security of his home which may be swept away by the abstract hand of State regulation that hangs over the residents of the river like a suffocating mist.
Exploring a downriver island. Ellis and Neckbone examine and lay claims to the discovered ruins of a boat suspended in a tree, an image straight out of Herzog, though credited to the “last flood” on the river. Feeling they have discovered both a secure hideaway and a new source of adventure, they soon discover the boat is not abandoned as initially thought when they happen upon the scraggly figure of Mud, who immediately commandeers the imagination of Ellis who sees the stranger as a source of new-found purpose: both as a mystery to be solved and in assuming the role as protectorate to someone he quickly recognizes may be in danger. It is the mystery of Mud, who he is and why he is hiding, and Ellis’ discovery and reaction to these unfolding mysteries that becomes the crux of the film., though, naturally, as in all coming-of-age stories, the narrative is not exclusively focused on one influence but on several and as long as the film concentrates on Ellis’ reactive relationship with Mud and his own credibly depicted life (inclusive of a budding first romance and his insecure family situation), it develops into an interesting and welcome addition to the genre.
The film unfolds at a measured pace, allowing for a dreamy quality in the rhythms of everyday existence in the rural Arkansas setting, a gracefully unhurried unveiling of a life seldom depicted in modern American cinema, where the integrity of a scene is allowed the time to unfold with a deliberation consistent with the people of the region living lives that seem far less complicated and closer to nature, yet it is importantly emphasized these are not the stereotypical “Oakie” rural cast of characters that American commercial cinema usually associates with derision as rednecks; where the hint of a Southern drawl assumes an automatic lowering of forty I.Q. points. Between the sweaty pseudo-Gothic neurotic excesses of Tennessee Williams, the feral “nine fingered people” of James Dickey and the fender crashing Good Ol’ Boys of Hal Needham, the image of the American South hasn’t fared well in Hollywood cinema. In “Mud”, director-writer Jeff Nichols approaches his characters with a rare regard for their fundamental dignity, detailing small but telling incidents which comprise what is too often dismissed as a more unsophisticated- and therefore artistically disrespected -lifestyle, respecting the day-to-day preoccupation of surviving each day in the working man’s world that is far too often absent in commercial American cinema. Nichols has an invaluable sympathetic eye toward the daily struggles of the cinematically underrepresented, but narratives still require more than evocative verisimilitude to successfully progress, and given the nature of the film’s story, it is Ellis’ slow unraveling of the mystery of Mud’s true identity which turns out to be the key to both advancing the action of the film and revealing entangled connections with several characters in the film, including the sluttish Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, clearly having a grand time slumming in character, though the sweat shows too much in the performance) who may or may not be Mud’s former (or current) love for whom he claims to have committed an extreme act of protection, and the stoic loner Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), Ellis’ neighbor across the river, who may or may not have once been a CIA assassin. Since it is the accumulative disclosure of the secrets of the plot which mirror Ellis’ emergence into maturity, it is not unreasonable to presume that that at least some (if not all) of these mysteries will find resolution during the film, though unhappily, this is not the case. Concurrent with this failure are the unsatisfying elements Nichols imposes on certain characters, most blatantly on the continuous tug of war between Ellis’ father and mother (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, both delivering the type of superlative, though not attention grabbing, performances that are bound to escape notice) which results in an unsatisfying resolution, as it appears the strained relationship might momentarily be mended by a common concern (Ellis’ near fatal encounter with a poisonous snake), but then is almost as immediately disjointed by external forces which are not only extraneous to their marital chemistry, but seem to come from a entirely different movie as well.
The reasons for Mud’s furtive behavior- his Texas killing of Juniper’s physical abuser -incites a subplot with the arrival of the serpentine Carver (Paul Sparks, an actor whose very appearance screams “psycho killer”) who spends an inordinate amount of time viciously assaulting and terrorizing both Juniper and Ellis, without consequence, before the arrival of his father King (Joe Don Baker) and his gang of professional killers who transport this often sensitive tale of adolescent into a modern version of a Charles Bronson shoot-em-up; as an alarmingly insoluble mix as that of a rabid Buford Pusser in concert with Atticus Finch; highlighted with gratuitous and unnecessary gun battle action more reminiscent of “Mr. Majestyk” than a tale of awakening adulthood. In this subplot, which takes complete control over the more nuanced accumulation of detail which informed Ellis’ experiences, the film shows Nichols abandoning the sensitivity on such promising display throughout the earlier portion of the film, and conceding to a recklessly vacant use of brutal action movie tropes, as if gratuitous sadism were a natural substitute for following a boy’s tentative journey into manhood.
Nor is the audience rewarded with closure to the film’s remaining narrative mysteries. Far too many essential question remain unanswered. Just what is the actual relationship between Mud and Juniper? Why, if he defended her by killing a man, did they arrange for an unrealistically awkward reunion scheme that would rely on the cooperation of a pair of boys of whom they would have no knowledge existed? Why does no one call the police during Carver’s reign of criminal behavior? Just who is Tom Blankenship, a former military sharpshooter or an ex-CIA assassin? What is the truth of Tom’s relationship to Mud- are they actually father and son? And, just who is that body floating at the bottom of the river after the gun battle, anyway? Unfortunately, there is no attempt to connect any of these loose ends which results in a dramatic dead end for much of which has been slowly and meticulously developed (and despite the attractiveness of a film unafraid to allow its story to unfold rather than cater to the caprices of contemporary attention deficit storytelling, the movie is far too long) in the symbiotic give and take between Mud and Ellis. While this interconnection is advanced in perceptively telling stages of trust and dependency corresponding with equally interdependent responsibility and protectiveness, the film ends on a wrenching note of ambiguity- Ellis is not certain that Mud is alive or dead -that is bookmarked by a crassly deflating coda where Ellis’ reaction to his new domestic situation is to leer at the female neighbors, a contradictory bit of behavior that deflates the lessons learned through his own experiences and examples encountered through his parents and Mud. Surely, the intention of this initially incisive coming-of-age drama is not to pigeonhole its central character as a future possible character model consistent with those in depressing, lewd teen sex comedies.
Nichols’ eleventh hour reversal of narrative direction (a disappointingly huge caveat) is both puzzling and frustrating and speaks of a film maker still insecure with his artistic choices. However, what is indisputable are the extraordinary performances of Matthew McConaughey and Tye Sheridan–the former, a star finally realizing his promise as a solid actor, and the latter, a solid young actor with early promise of being a future star –of which both the film and the audience are shared beneficiaries.