With the coming of spring and summer, a young multiplex moviegoer’s thoughts turn to special-effects-driven blockbusters set amid fantasy worlds. So it’s refreshing to have a film come along at this time of year that is aimed at adults, takes place in the real world and evokes a sense of literary grace.
That Mud may end up being one of the best films of the year just makes its arrival that much sweeter.
Directed by Little Rock-born, Austin-based director Jeff Nichols, who received critical hosannas for his little-seen 2011 feature Take Shelter, Mud has the feel of a novel — perhaps one written by Carson McCullers or Paul Horgan — that’s rooted deep in American soil. Yet it was written specifically for the screen by Nichols, who has conjured up a coming-of-age story set in the South that doesn’t resort to using caricatures and cliches.
Matthew McConaughey, who continues to be on a roll with a string of strong performances in recent years, plays Mud, a man on the lam who takes refuge on a small island in the Mississippi River near a small Arkansas town. He’s discovered by two boys, Ellis (a terrific Tye Sheridan, The Tree of Life) and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Instead of turning Mud in, they befriend him, keep his secret and get sucked into the details of his hard-knock life, which includes a troubled girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) he’s supposed to meet up with, and the men who want to see him dead.
But Mud isn’t just one man’s story. It’s also a portrait of a nowhere town and a way of life that’s on the verge of extinction. The ramshackle houseboats the boys’ families live in are under threat of demolition. Aside from their fascination with Mud, Ellis and Neckbone are typical adolescents, trying to navigate the choppy waters of their awakening sexuality and — judging from Ellis’ experience with an older girl he has a crush on — not having much success. Also, Ellis is dealing with a family under emotional assault as the marriage of his parents (Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) slowly unravels.
McConaughey brings depth to a character who at first seems merely brashly macho. And Witherspoon, playing against her Legally Blonde stereotype, is nearly unrecognizable as a woman who has made many bad decisions in her life.
Nichols has described Mud as Mark Twain meets Sam Peckinpah, and if the director’s affectionate portrait of a distinctively American way of life brings to mind the former, the inevitable showdown recalls the testosterone-fueled violence of the latter. (Though it should be noted, Nichols doesn’t go overboard with the bloodletting; he’s no Quentin Tarantino.)
By the time the credits roll, you’ll feel as if you’ve just put down a good book. Cherish the feeling. With all the summer superheroes waiting in the wings, it’s a buzz you may not experience for a few months.