Film review/interview: ‘Mud’ Tells a Lovely American Story

Mud 10Mud is a coming-of-age story that’s also a love letter to American literature and classic American movies. For writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) it began with a simple idea that gestated for years in his creative imagination.

“It’s a pretty dense story and I think a part of that is the fact that I’ve carried this story with me longer than any other films I’ve made. I’ve been thinking about this since the late ‘90s when I was in college,” the 34-year-old Arkansas native told ArtsNash, “…and I’ve been slowly adding details to it. I started with the idea of a man on this island in the Mississippi (River) and then built on that little by little. I knew that when I had that initial idea that it was a classic American story. I love Mark Twain…and I love classic American movies from the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. This felt like an idea that could support those and other things that I love.

“You can’t plan a good film, much less a classic film…but the only way I know to hopefully make this resonate with an audience is to create a personal connection to the story. That’s where the whole ‘Mud and his first love’ story came from. It was something I experienced, that I could remember and was palpable for me. If you try not to think about what the whole world wants in a movie, but find something that you feel strong about emotionally, then I think you’ve got a shot of making a movie people will want to see.”

Mud 8Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a 14-year-old Arkansas boy who lives on a makeshift riverbank houseboat with his parents Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), whose marriage is faltering. He and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who lives with his uncle, Galen (Michael Shannon) since his parents died, decide to investigate an unusual discovery Neckbone has made on a Mississippi River island – a boat suspended high in the trees.

In the boat they find fresh bread and a footprint, meaning someone else has gotten to their prize discovery first; at the shore near their boat the meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Mud tells them he’ll give them the boat in exchange for food. The boys soon find out that Mud has killed a man in Texas because of what that man did to Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman that Mud first fell in love with when both were very young. But the dead man’s daddy King (Joe Don Baker) is looking for Mud with Carver (Paul Sparks) and wants to avenge his son’s death; the boys eventually seek the help of Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), while Ellis finds his own rocky path to love in the person of May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).

Mud 1Sheridan played the youngest of the three boys in Terrence Malik’s Tree of Life. From his audition forward Nichols knew he had just the right performer for the movie’s pivotal role. “When he walked into the room he was just what I was looking for in Ellis, down to his haircut,” the director noted. “…He’s been around the filmmaking world…but he hasn’t been ruined by it. (The Texas native) still lives on a farm. He’s perfect for what I was trying to convey in the character.

“When you’re writing a film that rests on the shoulders of a 14-year-old boy you just have to have hope. I think we will look back on Tye Sheridan in this film and say, ‘This was a movie star when he was young.’”

Mud 3McConaughey gives an incredible performance as Mud, and Witherspoon adds another fine credit to her impressive career. Of course, they aren’t the only remarkable actors in this impeccable cast; the set was full of them from a legend like the great writer/actor Shepard – who suggested his character would be reading “Don Quixote,” which led Nichols to order a particular edition the two had discussed overnighted to the set. Nichols signed it to Shepard and gave it to him after it was used in the film. “He seemed genuinely touched by the gift,” Nichols noted, adding that Shepard returned the favor by signing a copy of his latest book to Nichols – to Joe Don Baker.

Baker related tales of his work on Walking Tall (which was shot in Jackson, Tenn.) and other films (he has, after all, been both a good guy and bad guy in different James Bond films) to the real-life bounty hunters and crew – “He was such a nice guy and everybody enjoyed having him on set,” Nichols said – and having the no-less-revered McKinnon on set as Ellis’ father was also a great experience for a director who loved the actor/director/writer’s work in the short The Accountant and the series Deadwood. “It was so incredible having these actors on set that I’ve admired for so long,” the director added.

Mud 9Fine acting, a personal coming-of-age story about love to which we can all relate and the marvelous location scenery in Arkansas as well as other elements make Mud a movie to savor now and in the future. Yes, there’s no formula for making a good film, let alone a classic, but Nichols and his colleagues have crafted a story that sticks as close to the heart as a boat hugging the Mississippi shoreline.

Mud ( and opens today (April 26) in Nashville at the Regal Green Hills Stadium 16 following its April 18 opening night screening at the 2013 Nashville Film Festival. Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking, 130 min. Written and directed by Jeff Nichols. Starring Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Paul Sparks, Joe Don Baker and Bonnie Sturdivant.


*Photos by James Bridges courtesy Roadside Attractions.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (


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