Blu-ray Review: Mud

STUDIO: Lionsgate | DIRECTOR: Jeff Nichols | CAST: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Joe Don Baker
BLU-RAY & DVD RELEASE DATE: 8/6/2013 | PRICE: Blu-ray $24.99, DVD $19.98
BONUSES: commentary, featurettes
SPECS: R | 130 min. | Drama | 2.35:1 widescreen | DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1/Dolby Digital 5.1 | English and Spanish subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie | Audio | Video | Overall

Children have always been fascinated with exploration and adventure, a wonderment that’s best been encapsulated in such classics as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Rob Reiner’s 1986 movie Stand By Me, adapted from a Stephen King novella.  So it’s no accident that Mud, written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter), feels like a mash-up of those two works and other coming-of-age dramas. But, sadly, while Mud has terrific performances all around and some drama in its tale of two Arkansas boys who discover a mysterious drifter hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River, the film never comes close to the works that inspired it.

Matthew McConaughey (Bernie), is Mud, a fugitive from the law who’s waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, Water for Elephants), to join him before disappearing for good. Ellis (Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and his best friend Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland) are the boys who stumble upon Mud—living in a boat perched in a tree—and make it their mission to help him because, well, it’s True Love and True Love should conquer all. That—and the fact that Ellis, all of 14, is being put through the wringer by his own infatuation for a high school girl, his parents’ pending divorce, and the forthcoming demolition of the boathouse his family calls home.  Someone deserves a happy ending, darn it!  Sam Shepard (Blackthorn) enters the picture as another river denizen of nebulous background, who’s the closest thing to a father Mud has ever had.

Mud movie scene

Matthew McConaughey is a mystery man in Mud.

This has all the makings of a compelling study of three characters intertwined by fate as they strive for their own happiness, maybe even as a “newly minted American classic,” as the Wall Street Journal proclaimed. Unfortunately, the story is plodding, the dialogue is often contrived, and the characters’ motivations are not entirely clear. A sewn-in threat by a crime family seeking revenge on Mud offers a glimpse of some non-talky payoff before the credits roll, but it becomes laughable as they kneel and pray to God for the death of the man they’re after.

The bright spots are McConaughey, who completely inhabits the role of the downtrodden, tangle-haired, superstitious recluse, and Sheridan and Lofland, two local actors who, we learn in one of several supplemental featurettes, have the real-life background to effectively pull off their river-loving characters. Ray McKinnon (TV’s Sons of Anarchy) and Sarah Paulson (Martha Marcy May Marlene) as Ellis’ parents, and Michael Shannon (The Runaways) as Neckbone’s slightly sleazy uncle, round out an exceptional cast and are all completely comfortable in their Southern dialects.

The Big Miss plays an important role in the film, and the photography reveals the filmmakers’ adoration of their project’s setting.  We get a virtual palette of colors depicting the river at different times of day, and it all looks beautiful in high-resolution.  In fact, the movie looks great throughout, and in the end may give this added currency as Hollywood’s love letter to the bayou.  One of the featurettes, “Southern Authenticity” further extols the river, its people and an industry and lifestyle that the filmmaker contends is disappearing.

Other supplements include a by-the-numbers look at the cast, and “A Very Personal Tale: Writing and Directing Mud,” which reveals Nichols’ own Southern roots.  The director also provides a commentary, which is mostly scene-specific but includes his thoughts on the movie’s themes, and some of the serendipity that worked in the production’s favor.

Mud feels as American as apple pie and Chevrolet, and evokes nostalgia for a time when kids actually went out and discovered the world instead of reading about it online (the film is apparently set in primitive, pre-Internet times). But Stand By Me it’s not.


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About Gary

Gary Frisch has been contributing laserdisc, DVD and Blu-ray reviews to Video Business magazine, Home Theater Magazine, Home Theater Buyer’s Guide, Stereophile Guide to Home Theater and the DVD Guide for more than 14 years. He still has a collection of more than 40 laserdiscs, along with a working auto-reverse LD player, but thinks Blu-ray is da bomb and anxiously awaits the original Star Wars trilogy so he can buy it for the fifth time.