The two young boys who discover Mud in the woods are Ellis and Neckbone, who present the kind of character contrast that makes for good buddy narratives. Ellis, who is from an intact (if conflict-ridden) family and has an idealistic faith in the cure-all power of romantic love, is eager to help Mud re-unite with the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), despite the danger in the mission. Neckbone, a skeptical latchkey kid, lives with a laid-back musician-uncle with little knack for parenting. "Neck," as he's called, goes along for the ride despite his doubts about Mud.
"Mud" has parallels to "The Tree of Life," which also starred Tye Sheridan (Ellis). Much of the movie follows Ellis and Neckbone as they wander all over the outdoors, slipping under fences, sidestepping snakes, picking through a junkyard, independent and yet still unformed, perplexed by the complicated adult world.
There's a raw physicality in the terrain of "Mud." The setting in backwoods Arkansas has a
visual color scheme dominated by earth tones. The camera eye alternately moves along the river at the center of the story or under tree cover, presenting big expansive spaces that communicate the infinity of the natural world or close-ups with blurred backgrounds. Rich images abound, including dappled sunlight, grainy underwater footage, a cracked, dry riverbed, fish heads in a bucket, birds flying free against a blue sky.
The rural inhabitants of "Mud" are tied to a landscape that feels safe and familiar to them, frozen in time. Ellis's family lives in a riverside house which has been passed down to his mother, while his father sells fish out of the back of a pick-up truck. Old school honor coincides with a Wild West potential for sudden violence; Mud's vigilante pursuers kneel in a hotel room as they pray for his death.
As in many small towns, the adult characters appear to know a lot about their neighbors' pasts, but this information is only revealed to the viewer in bits and pieces, which maintains a sense of mystery. What's Mud's story? How did he end up a fugitive hiding out in the woods? Should Mud invest all of his energy in Juniper? Does she really love him? Should Ellis and Neckbone be putting their lives on the line for Mud?
Then there's Tom Blankenship, a lone wolf who lives on the river, played by Sam Shephard.
As one character says, "Tom's had lives you never even knew." Who is Blankenship and what are his motivations?
These intertwining threads are masterfully woven in a leisurely, organic fashion which gives the viewer time to become familiar with flesh-and-blood characters through their mannerisms, dialogue, interplay, and back stories.
When events take over in the last section of the movie, the stage has been carefully set; the suspense builds and releases in a way that doesn't feel grafted on for cheap thrills.
The ending ties up loose ends a little too neatly for my taste, but this is a mere quibble. "Mud" is one of the most rewarding character-driven American films of the past five years. 98% of critics can't be wrong.
Other "Truth and Beauty" film reviews:
"Honest Abe Makes Sausage" (about "Lincoln")
"Errol Morris Strikes Again" (about "Tabloid")