With Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), 34-year-old Jeff Nichols has established himself as a leading voice of independent cinema in this country, and Mud gives us another compelling reason to listen. The filmmaker, who hails from Little Rock, AR, sticks close to his Mid-South roots, with Mud filmed entirely in that peculiar but lovely state. (I’ve been, though not nearly as deeply as the movie goes.) Nichols says Mark Twain is a major influence, and Mud is his Adventures of Huck Finn.
Also his Great Expectations, Stand By Me, and all-around coming of age story, with the darkness of his earlier films casting a shadow over the sun-seared Mississippi River locales. These are explored, foolhardily, by two 14-year-olds, Ellis (The Tree of Life co-star Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland). With Ellis caught in a tug of war with his divorcing parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone on his own for long stretches as his eccentric uncle Galen (Nichols’ touchstone actor, Michael Shannon) dives for turtles in ancient underwater gear, the boys feel the pull of adventure, away from familial and adolescent pressures. On an otherwise deserted island they find “treasure,” a boat that somehow got stuck atop a tree. In due course they meet its claimant, the mysterious but not unkindly Mud (Matthew McConaughey). Seemingly surviving on wildlife and Penthouse magazines, Mud, an escaped convict with a shifting past, uses the boys as a conduit to the outside world. Ellis, entrusted with messages for Mud’s lady love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), a bedraggled fairy princess stuck not in a tower but in a cheap motel, learns self-reliance and a few other skills useful for a put-upon high school freshman. Mud’s past, however, is gaining on him, as King (Joe Don Baker) assembles a posse of bounty hunters to flush him out of hiding.
That third-act turn to action, coming at the end of a languorous but unpredictable two hours focused on Mud and the boys, will feel like a misstep to some. I went with it, mainly, I admit, because I heart Baker, the star of Walking Tall (1972) and other backwoods adventures, here utilized as an essential part of Nichols’ mosaic of Southern life. Mud contemplates the roles that storytelling and folklore play in our lives, and the denouement of the film is another saga for the campfire.
Shown at Cannes last year this is altogether a looser piece that Nichols’ two other films, with more humor, and largely unburdened by apocalypse. Like DP Adam Stone’s Steadicam, the film glides, rarely pausing as it accumulates incidents and anecdotes. Its appeal rests on the shoulders of the two boys, who give unforced and natural performances that play off beautifully against Mud’s aloofness. As his name suggests Mud, sly and dirty though he is, is as unformed in some ways as they are, and McConaughey adds to a rich gallery of performances that began with The Lincoln Lawyer two years ago and continued through a stellar 2012. Nichols wanted to cast the actor since seeing him in Lone Star (1996), and patience paid off, as McConaughey, free of the yoke of rom-coms, has greater range and facility. He’s poised to strike, like the cottonmouths that share Mud’s island, and present as well to extend a paternal hand. He’s a captivating presence and a key reason among several to take a chance on a beguiling movie with a title that suggests anything but lyricism.