What It's About
A coming-of-age adventure steeped in rural atmosphere, "Mud" follows two boys as they are drawn to a mysterious guy (Matthew McConaughey) hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River near their small Arkansas town.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are spellbound by this stranger and his murky past. They turn their attention to helping him out, despite or because of the danger, as he's on the run from bounty hunters.
Ellis' parents are splitting up and orphaned Neckbone lives with his quirky uncle (Michael Shannon), so the boys gleefully escape into this very adult world. They are also navigating the early teen years -- captivated and perplexed by females.
Along the way, they learn tough truths about heartbreak, love, trust, friendship, loyalty and betrayal.
The authentic nature of the performances, especially the two young boys, is the most appealing aspect of the film. McConaughey, in another requisite shirtless appearance, shows some real heft here as the scruffy outlaw. Tye Sheridan ("Tree of Life") and Jacob Lofland make strong impressions as innocents thrown into sticky grown-up situations. Ellis Jr. is wise beyond his years and the wonderfully nicknamed Neckbone is a perfect boyhood companion.
Witherspoon's slumming here as a po' white trash version of a femme fatale, and her flimsy character remains enigmatic. The intense bond between McConaughey's Mud and Witherspoon's Juniper is alluded to many times, but not shown, and therefore, a little suspect.
Ray McKinnon ("The Blind Side") is well-suited as the bitter dad, Ellis Sr., beaten down by life.
Shepard and Baker bring shades of menace to their powerful characters.
Strong references to Mark Twain and 'Stand By Me" make this hypnotic as the film meanders through richly textured layers. It's both gritty and lyrical, a striking combination.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols ("Take Shelter") shows a great deal of promise. He has a flair for giving us many details to savor. The cinematography is superb, capturing the river lore, and music accentuates it well.
What Doesn't Work
The film moseys, taking its sweet time to unfold what's real. We are lead to a grand finale, and it's a standard showdown, like countless others -- are we in a different movie now? Several conflicts are resolved; others are not.
But the movie's heart is in the right place. For fans of Southern fables, this one is appealing without being sticky-sweet sentimental.
3 out of 4 stars
Director: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Ray McKinnon, Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Joe Don Baker
Rated: PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking