- Mud (2012) movie review: Featuring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon – but in reality mostly about Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland – writer-director Jeff Nichols’ unusual Arkansas-set drama makes great use of its Southern U.S. locations.
Mud movie review: Nothing ordinary about Jeff Nichols’ Arkansas-set mix of coming-of-age drama & psychological thriller
Ostensibly, writer-director Jeff Nichols’ Mud is about the titular character, played by Matthew McConaughey, who’s on the run from both the law and the family of the man he killed for love of a woman, Juniper, played by a bedraggled Reese Witherspoon. In reality, however, Mud isn’t about McConaughey’s fugitive; instead, it’s a coming-of-age story that’s part mystery, part fable, and part thriller.
Beneath it all lies a love story; indeed, several love stories, all tied together through the heart of a young boy called Ellis (The Tree of Life’s Tye Sheridan in an accomplished performance). A witness to the death of love in his family, Ellis feels it in his heart and is willing to do anything, however dangerous, to prove to himself that love is real and worth fighting – and even dying – for, as long as that love is deep and true.
‘Southern Gothic’ filmmaking
Unlike Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ impressive feature debut, this psychological thriller is crafted in the style of a new wave of filmmaking known as Southern Gothic, which actually isn’t so much “new” as resurgent – and perhaps modernized by a number of young country-born filmmakers, among whom Nichols is most certainly one.
As a reference, Mud will fit quite nicely into your movie collection alongside Billy Bob Thornton’s One False Move and Sling Blade, and equally well next to adaptations of Tennessee Williams or Samuel Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain), including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. High praise, yes, but not hyperbole, for Mud is a remarkably good combination of Southern Gothic lore and solid filmmaking.
Language is key
Among other elements, language is key in the Southern Gothic genre, right down to individual words – some of which mean nothing outside of the county where they were coined, yaherdme? (Which is actually three words condensed to pose one Southern Gothic question: “You heard me?”)
It’s a language that rings true because it is. It can be found in the films of this new wave, including That Evening Sun, written and directed by Scott Teems of Georgia; Bloodworth / Provinces of Night, directed by Shane Dax Taylor of Kentucky; and Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols of Little Rock, Arkansas.
When spoken by those who understand it, this style of writing is exquisite, though it requires an actual speaker of the language. As a result, another requirement of Southern Gothic filmmaking is to cast actors who can speak the language.
Thus, Southern Gothic films feature Southern-born actors because they are from these (or similar) places, and know the languages and the characters they are portraying in a personal way. Matthew McConaughey is from Texas; Reese Witherspoon is from New Orleans; and the movie’s de facto leads, Texas’ Tye Sheridan and Arkansas’ Jacob Lofland, are Southern boys with Southern sensibilities as well.
Fantastic sense of place
Lastly, Southern Gothic filmmaking is very much about place.
Nichols’ latest is set in Arkansas along the Mississippi river – Mark Twain’s river – full of cottonmouths and muddy isles that disappear with the river’s rise and reappear when it recedes, thus revealing something not seen every day.
Ultimately, Mud is a Southern story wherein the sense of place is as important as plot points and character arcs. Nichols knows these places and he films them with the interest and care of a person who is shooting home movies – because he is.
The final result is that Mud is as beautiful to watch as it is to listen to – and feel kinship to – whether you’re from the South or just Southern at heart.
Direction & Screenplay: Jeff Nichols.
“Mud (2012) Movie Review” endnotes
Tye Sheridan was the Youth in Film winner at the Las Vegas Film Critics Society Awards.
Matthew McConaughey Mud movie image: Roadside Attractions.
“Mud Movie (2012) Review: Great Sense of Place” last updated in January 2022.