Acouple of southern boys take refuge from the stresses of their fraught family lives by seeking adventure on the Mississippi River.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols, whose excellent body of work includes Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, may deliberately be invoking the excellent body of work by Mark Twain, specifically Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer.
But Nichols approaches the premise with an open heart and without satiric agenda. This is a coming-of-age story in the classic mould, wherein a boy attempts to negotiate his road to manhood and finds his path impeded by love, confusion and very real peril.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan, a superb young actor) lives in a houseboat off the river and intuits trouble a-brewing between his stoic redneck dad (Ray McKinnon) and his more gentle mom (Sarah Paulson), a woman who aspires to a better life.
An early morning sojourn with his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) takes these Arkansas boys to a lonely island on the river where a boat sits nestled in the branches of a tree, a forgotten casualty of a flood. The boys want to lay finders rights to it but the craft has already been claimed by a scraggly sun-dried fugitive called Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
A tentative relationship develops between the boys and the man and Mud lets slip that he is waiting for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a white trash goddess who prowls the local Piggly-Wiggly in Daisy Duke shorts. Juniper is afflicted with tragic judgment when it comes to men. One of her boyfriends injured her. Mud confesses he tracked the man down and exacted a rash retribution. Now, he is not only sought by state police but his victim's wealthy family, folks who can afford to hire a small army of bounty hunters.
Ellis, enduring his own painful first courtship, sees something redeeming and romantic in Mud's mission and acts as a go-between, even as he and Neckbone engage in a scavenger hunt for parts that will make the boat seaworthy.
As with his two previous features, Nichols demonstrates a kind of mastery of peeling back the stoic veneer of rural American masculinity to reveal some of the raw anguish beneath. (Ironically, Nichol's most potent agent in that mission, actor Michael Shannon, is here cast in the comparatively sunny role of Neckbone's custodian uncle Galen, perhaps the only character in the movie not afflicted by troubled relationships.) The fact that his hero here is just 14 years old suggests a sense of hope that his past films lack.
Nichols happens to be brilliant with actors, which also include (on the older side of the spectrum) Sam Shepard as Ellis's enigmatic river neighbour and Joe Don Baker as Mud's vengeful nemesis.
Once again, this is a film that demands a reconsideration of Matthew McConaughey, once a glib studmuffin in a series of substandard rom-coms and action movies, now emerging as an unexpected character actor of some ability. (See also: Killer Joe.)
A few years ago, a movie pairing Reese Witherspoon and Matthew McConaughey as star-crossed lovers would have set off warning bells in the heart of any discriminating moviegoer.
Here, it happens to pay off in one of the better films of the year thus far.
Jeff Nichols' script for Mud is a lot like the Mississippi River that serves as a backdrop for the tale of unrequited love. There are times it is big and powerful and other times when it becomes so serene it's easy to forget the depths that hide below.
SEmD Rick Bentley, Fresno Bee
One of the most creatively rich and emotionally rewarding movies to come along this year.
-- Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times
Mud is steeped in a sense of place, and the people inhabiting it. Southern. Superstitious. Suspenseful. Sublime.
-- Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer