PLOT: Two boys happen upon an outlaw in hiding and help him repair a boat and elude the men who are hunting him.
REVIEW: Jeff Nichols is quickly becoming one of my favorite new directors. His 2007 debut, SHOTGUN STORIES, was a sobering drama about half-brothers at each others throats. Two years ago he came out with TAKE SHELTER, a disorienting and scary study of a man who is either losing his mind or foreseeing the end of the world. Now he brings us MUD, a backwoods coming-of-age tale that resembles what might occur if Mark Twain wrote a gritty Southern crime flick. He has only made good films up until this point, but this is really good.
The film's focus is Ellis (Tye Sheridan, excellent), an Arkansas teenager who is experiencing the confusion of adolescence in full force: his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) appear to be on the verge of a separation, which could result in the abandonment of his family's houseboat, the only home he's known. He's noticing (and being noticed by) girls, but isn't quite sure how to approach them. (He tries punching the older kid who's bugging his crush; that's a start.) His only friend is Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a similarly spirited young man who endures a rather threadbare existence with his layabout uncle (Michael Shannon).
In lieu of anything truly meaningful to pursue, the two boys head to a small, deserted island on the Mississippi River one day to see a boat in a tree. Literally, a boat in a tree, evidently put there during a recent flood. The boat signifies an escape for the boys; a unique tree house where they can hide away from their problems. Only this "escape" comes with a twist: the boat has an occupant. His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), and he's a shady character the boys are instantly wary of. (Obviously - he lives in a damn tree-boat on a deserted island.) More than wary, however, Ellis is intrigued: by the "who" of Mud, the "why" of his circumstance" and the "what" of his future plans. Seeing kindred spirits of sorts, Mud enlists the Ellis and Neckbone in helping him start the next phase in his tumultuous life, which includes bringing the boat out of the tree, repairing it, and then finding Mud's long-lost love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and making sure she's on that boat when he takes off for... who knows.
The boyish adventure aspects of the early parts of this tale are offset with darker moods down the line: unsurprisingly, Mud is in hiding, and it's because he's done some bad things to some (evidently) bad people. One such bad person ended up dead, and now his family is out for vengeance. The boys not only have to work around their elders in their attempt to help Mud, they've got to avoid some cold-blooded sorts, too.
Nichols infuses Mud with all sorts of interesting quirks and superstitions: he's afraid of snakes because of a past trauma; he never takes his shirt off (shocking for a McConaughey character, I know), he believes in curses and voodoo. And though he assures the boys that he's done some terrible things, we only see what they see: a lovelorn hero trying to rescue his ladylove from the villains. The actor's trademark lackadaisical charm adds some likability to Mud's slippery nature, but McConaughey and Nichols actually never make us doubt his sincerity; another movie would attempt to give us pause about Mud's intentions - is he truly friend, or foe? - but here we're firmly in the belief that we're dealing with an honorable man. At least, where his two new friends are concerned.
MUD is Nichols' most assured work thus far, and his most relatable. Those who may have been turned off by the grimness of SHOTGUN STORIES or the arcane (and equally grim) mystery of TAKE SHELTER will find Nichols serving up a more accessible, frequently amusing story, which is bolstered by the likable chaps at the center of the action, as well as the understated star power of McConaughey and Witherspoon. (McConaughey once again proves that he's one of the most compelling leading men working today; he's really terrific in this.) Sheridan and Lofland are both natural and decidedly unglamorous; two boys who may very well have been picked out of the Mississippi and delivered on screen. "Authentic" is the word when it comes to actors and locations, you're going to leave the movie feeling grit underneath your fingernails.
However, Nichols is not afraid to bring MUD into melodrama territory, and that's not a complaint. The film's third act brings some ticking-clock suspense with it, plenty of redemption (don't you know Mud eventually has to square off with some snakes, figurative and literal) and even a violent climactic shootout. Nichols isn't obligated to remain unconventional; as was the case with TAKE SHELTER, he's made his own skewed version of a genre film, and it's a winner.