In Mud, director Jeff Nichols switches gears from the paranoid delusions of his previous film, Take Shelter, and delivers a gentler, more straightforward tale that has the depth and resonance of a novel (Mark Twain is an obvious influence here). Fourteen-year-old best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live in houseboats along the Mississippi River with their families. Ellis’ parents are on the brink of divorce; Neckbone is being raised by his uncle (Michael Shannon, in a sunny, easygoing mode), who makes a living diving for oysters.
There isn’t much to do in their generic, dusty small Arkansas town, so the boys like to explore the river and visit various patches of land. On one of them, they encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a raggedy, superstitious man who initially seems dangerous — even crazy. Slowly, he earns the boys’ trust and asks them to bring him food and tools to help him bring down a boat that somehow ended perched on a high treetop.
The movie’s title implies McConaughey will be the central character, but this is really a coming-of-age story that sneaks up on you. Mud is a fugitive who relies on the boys to sneak notes to his girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon), who is hiding out in a motel in town, and steal things such as an engine that he can use to sail away from the island. Nichols stays with the boys throughout the film — we only see Mud when they visit him — and Sheridan and Lofland are terrific actors who let you share in their characters’ gradual loss of innocence. When Ellis punches out an older boy for being mean to a girl he pines for, you see the gallantry and courage of the man he will become.
Nichols uses the river setting to make old things seem new — the people who live on houseboats form a community that feels disconnected from the rest of the world — and once we learn why Mud is on the run, the film takes on the undertones of a thriller. Nichols cheats a bit at the end and takes the easy way out, resorting to a climactic shootout that feels routine and contrived. But you come away from Mud fondly remembering those two boys, especially Ellis, who has taken his first steps toward adulthood and discovers it suits him just fine.
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker.
Writer-director: Jeff Nichols.
Producers: Lisa Marie Falcone, Sarah Green, Aaron Ryder.
A Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions release. Running time: 130 minutes. Vulgar language, brief violence, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: South Beach, Sunset Place, Aventura, Cocowalk; in Broward: Gateway; in Palm Beach: Palace, Shadowood, Delray Beach, Parisian.