Writer/director Jeff Nichols makes it 3-for-3 with his latest Arkansas mini-epic Mud. Revealing yet another distinct corner of his native state, the filmmaker smoothly moves from the apocalyptic visions of Take Shelter to an immersive coming-of-age tale that refuses to be chained down by sentimental tropes. Populated by colorful, mysterious characters and thoughtfully developed themes, the film is a steady delight and rich in the way only a strong Southern story can be.
Building on his impressive 2012, Matthew McConaughey gives a commanding performance as the eponymous fugitive. Discovered by local teens Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) on a remote river island, living in a boat that the last flood lodged in a tree, Mud captivates from his first appearance. Smooth-talking the boys, who intended on claiming the boat for themselves, his chipped front tooth, superstitious anecdotes, and arcane yet benevolent nature make him a wonder to behold. Via McConaughey’s allure, Nichols’ dialogue, and the manly independence of the island, the audience is transported into the shoes of these impressionable teens who will do just about anything to be in his company.
Away from the island, Mud’s hold endures and is matched by the struggles of his young accomplices. At the forefront is fistfight-prone Ellis, a fourteen-year-old exposed to more than his emotional maturity can handle. Coping with a crumbling family and a home at risk, he seeks escape through innocent romance and the grown-up adventure of the treed boat. The youngest brother in The Tree of Life, here Sheridan echoes his older siblings from that film as he digests his findings with heartbreaking honesty. By his side and likewise impressive is Lofland, whose fantastic character name is firmly in line with that of Son, Boy, and Kid Hayes from Nichols’ Shotgun Stories. A mechanically-minded orphan living with his diver uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), Neckbone is both more grown up and grounded than his best friend, though his taste for risks is just as essential in moving the story forward.
As the pair evade bounty hunters and courier messages to Mud’s true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), they encounter people who are drawn to river life for the work and its solitude, both of which are threatened by a looming government presence. Through folks like Galen, whose chop-shop scuba helmet is later enhanced with twin spotlights for nighttime dives, and Mud’s estranged father figure Tom (Sam Shepard), the boys are exposed to a specific resourcefulness and commitment to family that feel true to the film’s setting. It’s therefore all the more impressive that the most influential character is also the film’s least flashy. In his fisherman father Senior (Ray McKinnon), Ellis finds the man he feels destined to rebel against, yet in their tough love conversations it’s clear from whom his values and notions of masculinity originate. Sprinkled between the boys’ island escapades, these father/son interactions give the film a deep level of humanity and are crucial in rounding out its rougher edges.
Throughout Mud, Nichols melds this sense of place with intelligent, storybook adventure, further heightened by gorgeous natural landscapes. Entertaining without losing its artistic vision, the film is an all-around winner and certainly one of the year’s best.
Rated PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.