Right on the shirttails of his two critically successful films: Shotgun Stories (2007) and Cannes Grand Prize award winning film Take Shelter (2011); Jeff Nichols has produced MUD. It is a story he wanted to tell for over a decade. Though it is not a traditional love story, it is a narrative that messages a surprise discovery about love, loyalty and commitment.
"It's about love", says screenwriter and filmmaker, Jeff Nichols, describing his latest feature film MUD. Nichols, a lover of Mark Twain and his literary accomplishments, uses themes in his third feature film similar to those in Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn: sacrifice, forgiveness, and love. Nichols' main teenage character, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) shares with Twains Huckleberry Finn’s, life lessons learned while experiencing innocent boyhood adventures. Escapades that turn a boy into a man. The names alone of Nichols’ characters in MUD conjure up visuals of simple but intelligent southern folk who have a past and a story to tell.
The storyline of MUD began to spin in his head years ago while doing research in an Arkansas Public Library. He happened upon a picture of a river diver in bizarre diving gear. The outfit appeared too imaginative to be real. Nichols was intrigued. He wondered what kind of a man would use the strange equipment and for what purpose while in a river. Nichols incorporated his fantasy about the river diver in MUD. He magically brings to life a sweet, slow pace world safely hidden along the ebb and flow of the Mississippi river. Folk minding their own business until Mud (Matthew McConaughey) appears. He’s a man who has never grown up nor been able to live a practical life, a dreamer and a poet, he could easily have run with Peter Pan and his Lost Boys--characters created by Scottish novelist and playwright, J.M. Barrie.
Nichols version of a timeless boyhood adventure captures the essence of curious boys exploring unknown territory. Doing what southern country boys do. Renowned actor, writer and Academy Award winner Sam Shepard who plays 'Tom Blankenship', a reclusive older man living in a houseboat opposite the river from Ellis gives Kudos to his young co-stars. "They are thank God, untrained!" He added, "You can't manufacture these kinds of kids in Hollywood. They are true, southern, rural boys that hunt and fish and drive boars and do all the stuff that is written in the character."
Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) sneak off one early summer morning to go to their favorite hide-away, an island on the Mississippi River. They can only get there by boat from their small town that is set on the banks of a river in Arkansas. Neckbone takes his uncle Galen's (Michael Shannon) boat for the boys’ excursion. If Uncle Galen gets wind of the escapade without his knowledge, Neckbone is in serious trouble. Uncle Galen uses the little skiff for his scrabbling occupation diving for oysters. The skiff is a work tool. It is needed upon demand. The second reason for an uncle-nephew interrogation is that strange things do happen to on the island. Uncle Galen concerns himself with his nephew’s boyhood ventures. Neckbone is required to check-in with his surrogate parent when unsupervised. Ellis, likewise, needs approval from his parents to venture to the island but he didn't care this particular morning. He needed to escape. The pain of the marriage dissolving between Ellis's parents--Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon)--is a heartbreak he cannot deal with nor can he understand.
Neckbone discovered a strange sight on the island some days earlier and needed Ellis to see his finding. Ellis was shocked to see a motor boat balancing on tree branches high above the ground. The boys climbed up the tree to check it out. Neckbone deemed it his castle in the sky. Ellis noticed fresh food spread around as well as big foot prints. The sight gave the boys an eerie feeling. They scramble down the tree and run back to the island shore hoping to find their skiff still anchored. Ahh! A sigh of relief! The skiff is in clear view. Nearing the skiff they notice imprinted on the sandy shore the same footprints seen earlier. They begin to pull up anchor and a man appears out of nowhere wanting to converse with the boys. Startled and frightened the boys remained calm. They want to leave the island alive. The man introduces himself as Mud (Mathew McConaughey) and twisted their ears with lots of questions. Mud needs help. He needs to know if he can trust the boys to help him. Mud tells a wild and crazy story of how he is on the run from the law; therefore, hiding out on the island until it is safe to reunite with his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). The boys are skeptical but curious.
Ellis has a soft spot in his heart for Mud. He wants to see Mud fulfill his dreams. The lack of love between Ellis’ parents is a visual of destruction that crushes his heartfelt belief that true love wins. In Ellis's innocence he longs to see a love that can live forever. Ellis talks Neckbone into joining him to help Mud. Against his better judgment, Neckbone joins Ellis's plight only to discover that Mud is more than a shady character.