John Badcock — the Brit who compiled “Slang, the Dictionary of the Turf, the Ring, the Chase, the Pit, of Bon-Ton, and the Varieties of Life” in 1823 — defined “mud” as “a stupid twaddling fellow,” as worthless as the brown-colored dirt. He was the doctor who patched up Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Boothe. And he’s the titular character in Jeff Nichols’ latest film, “Mud.”
Perhaps Mud (Matthew McConaughey), with his Southern drawl and mud-colored skin, is “a stupid twaddling fellow,” but don’t you dare call him a bum. That’s one of the first things 14-year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) learn when they find Mud on an island near the Mississippi River and the boating town of DeWitt, Arkansas.
“You can call me a hobo ‘cuz I’m homeless, but call me a bum again and I’m gonna teach you something about respect your daddy never did,” Mud says.
Perhaps Ellis and Neckbone listen to him because he’s built “lean and hungry” like Cassius from Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” gobbling cans of beans like he’s starved. A .45 pistol is tucked behind his belt and a snake tattoo wraps around his tanned arm and neck.
“That guy’s crazy,” Neckbone says.
Or perhaps they listen to him because stupid is great, even admirable, in the eyes of pubescent boys looking for adventure. Mud is crazy, but isn’t that what love does to people? It injects venom into their veins like the snakebite that inspired Mud’s tattoo.
“You can’t trust love, Ellis,” warns Ellis’ father, Senior (Ray McKinnon). “You’re not careful, it’ll run out on you.”
Ellis’ mom (Sarah Paulson) and dad are going through a divorce and Ellis wants to believe in love. That’s why he and his pal, Neckbone, try to help Mud reunite with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the girl Mud killed and stole for: the reason he’s a fugitive.
Nichols, who wrote and directed the film, is a master storyteller, crafting a poetic coming-of-age drama. Like F. Scott Fitzgerald did with “The Great Gatsby,” Nichols makes us voyeurs to a tale of hopeless romance.
But Nichols isn’t alone in making “Mud” great. Sheridan’s charismatic with boyish idealistic charm, smoothing the rough edges surrounding Lofland’s loyal and cynical character. Witherspoon’s kind motherly eyes is enough to keep men up at night. And McConaughey makes us care for Mud, whose dangerous and hard shell masks an undying belief in love. Like Ellis, or Nick Carraway, we’re hopeless romantics, fascinated by watching the boats against the current, wishing that beneath those murky waters, we’ll find more than mud.
“Mud” was written and directed by Jeff Nichols.