A 14-year-old Arkansas kid gets mixed up with a murderer while pondering romantic notions about the meaning of love in Jeff Nichols’ assured and beautifully written Southern melodrama Mud.
Matthew McConaughey plays the title character whose short moniker fits both his economy with words and his opaqueness. He’s a homeless drifter discovered by two adventuresome boys to be living in a boat wedged in a tree, and he’s more of a mystery than that of how the craft got stuck so high off the ground in the first place. The pistol peeking out of the butt of Mud’s jeans signifies a danger (or at least a thrilling story) that so intrigues Ellis (Tye Sheridan from Tree of Life) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) that they become Mud’s confidantes.
Details of Mud’s background escape in tiny increments but his biggest secret Ellis learns with his mother (Sarah Paulson) when they get stopped at a police roadblock. Mud’s being hunted for killing a man in Florida who had the bad luck to first steal his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and then not treat her well. Not to blame a victim but her reputation’s not exactly blemish-free; between stints at Mud’s side, she tended to flitter off and hook up with “the meanest snakes around.” They both think they want each other back so Mud and his boy scouts saw the boat out of the tree and rehabilitate it for an unchartered journey to get Mud and Juniper far from town.
There’s a well-honed sense of place and atmosphere in Mud. Director Jeff Nichols told The New York Times the film is part of his “Arkansas trilogy,” along with his first two efforts, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, the apocalyptic indie that featured a brilliant Michael Shannon. (Shannon appears in Mud as the orphaned Neckbone’s uncle.) You can feel the humidity rising from the water, giving the set designers’ ramshackle houseboats and seedy motels a palpable pulse of doom amid stifling claustrophobia.
The plotline about Mud’s crime veers it in the direction of contemporary film noir while Ellis’s struggle with what love means, via his parents’ crumbling marriage and his first crush on an older girl, gives it all the essentials of a coming of age movie. Both tracks flows together seamlessly and the solid performances keep it grounded. McConaughey is especially good; his ability to show without too much grandstanding both testosterone-fueled bravado and deep-seated sadness continues to elevate his stature among those kind of actors who’ve turned their back on gloppy romantic comedies and found their niche in gritty independent films.
Mud | 2:10 | Dir. Jeff Nichols | Click here for theater show times.