I think it would be very easy to be dismissive of Mud, because it is the classic “simple tale, well told”. Boy-becomes-man, drawing on the traditions of Huckleberry Finn via Stand By Me. It is a story that tries nothing that is new to film-going veterans. Nor are there any particular flaws that detract from the simple pleasures offered by the narrative. It would be easy to be dismissive because on first glance, there seems little to say. And yet, that feels unfair. I have spilt considerable virtual ink picking on the small flaws of lesser works, and so to simply declare this work error-free and move on is to buy into the idea that criticism is about nit-picking and problem-finding, one might even say, problem-creating. It would be to damn this truly excellent film with the faintest of praises. So I want to take just a few paragraphs to explain why Mud worked so well, and where I think a less well crafted film could easily have gone off the rails.
The corner stone of my respect for this film is that it resisted the temptation to offer a simplistic morality. It leaves room for interpretation about the motives and morality of the key questions it raises. This is a key component of adulthood, but one which is strongly resisted by both adult drama and by teenage coming-of-age stories. It’s much easier to simply decide this person is good, or this bad – even if you are aware of some of the complexities involved. There is a slight risk of this subtext becoming text in places, as the hero is constantly being told that the situation is more complex than he thinks, and that there are facts unknown to him. Nevertheless, I thought this film resisted reductive interpretations of motive to close to the maximum extent it could within its genre form. It made me wish I had managed to catch Wadjda this time around, since that is a culturally different film with similar interests and similar level of critical embrace.
Closely related to this was the neutrality of the camera. Film is inherently “objective” – but most films can’t help but express sympathy for one or other character at different time, just as a third-person narration in a novel is sometimes overtly sympathetic to one or more character’s perspective. The most recent example that sticks in my mind was Hugo, which gave almost no chance for the audience to make up their own mind on any topic: the camera was too close to the perspective of the adolescent at the centre. Everything was rendered in terms of Hugo’s perspective on the world, trying to force all audiences to experience the story in the way that the protagonist does. Instead of illuminating a specific point of view, it restricted you from seeing anything else. A subtle distinction, but an important one. Mud‘s perspective is also focused around the young protagonist, but there are constant cues around the periphery to suggest other perspectives exist and are valid – and the protagonist recognises this as part of the story.
Which leads to the child protagonists. Again, I compare them very favourably with Hugo‘s. These characters had a range of conflicting motivations – just as adult characters do. Child protagonists are often reduced to the most elementary of motivations and strategies for action. In a fairy tale like Blancanieves, that’s appropriate, but not in a more straightforwardly “realistic” story with a more “realistic” structure. The complexity of the child characters is matched by the complexity of the adult characters, which, again, was an area where I felt Hugo was open to criticism. They have the same kind of ambiguous motivation that we can see at work in the human beings around us.
These are, to an extent, all matters of design. They can be “good” in abstract terms, and still fail in the execution. Mud however, is no less excellent in the avenues of acting, script and cinematography. There is not a single moment on screen that is not convincing, where the dialogue feels unrealistic or the acting off-key. In fact, all of the acting was really really good. I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of a handful of these performances crop up for Best Supporting nods down the road.
So, faint praise indeed: there is absolutely nothing wrong with this movie. If you want to find fault, it’s that it didn’t set its goals too high to start with.