Teenagers Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) find a fugitive known as Mud (McConaughey) hiding on an island in the Mississippi. They help him escape from the authorities, and a gang of bounty hunters, and reunite him with his girlfriend, Juniper (Witherspoon).
With his third film, Jeff Nichols could be seen as taking up the baton dropped by David Gordon-Green when the latter decided to start making naff comedies. (Both are thirtysomethings from Little Rock, Arkansas, and share a cinematographer in Adam Stone.) And given the earthy, humid setting, Huck Finn-parallels and on-the-lam plot, Mud sidles closest to Gordon-Green’s Undertow, although Nichols’ film is assuredly superior.
Like Take Shelter, it twines mythic themes and brittle family drama against huge-horizoned American backdrops. And not only does it include a performance which further affirms the extraordinary on-screen rehabilitation of Matthew McConaughey — whose Mud exudes intense, sweat-sheened charisma — but also showcases a bedrock-solid supporting cast (including, in a small, against-type role, Nichols’ mad-eyed muse, Michael Shannon), plus excellent turns from its two unknown leads: Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, as Mississippi water-rats Ellis and Neckbone. Sheridan nails Ellis’ fierce, unrefined romanticism, while Lofland pulls off Neckbone’s cautious pubescent-jadedness like a seasoned pro.
Yet what truly elevates Mud is the sense there’s something so much bigger going on here. There are subtle, supernatural elements, such as the ‘impossible’ vision of a boat in a tree, or the way Mud will appear and disappear as if into thin (or, in this case, thick) air. It is even implied that he may be immortal (“Mud don’t have no daddy,” says Sam Shepard’s bullet-headed Tom. “No mommy either, far as I can tell”). His nemesis, meanwhile, the posse-leader out for Mud’s blood (Joe Don Baker), is “the Devil his’self”.
Of course, Nichols isn’t literally saying that Mud is a kind of river-spirit battling Satanic oppression. Nichols is showing us this world through the flashing eyes of Ellis, a child on the cusp of manhood who angrily refutes his own father’s assertion that “you can’t trust love”; in this sense, Mud also shares a spiritual kinship with Beasts Of The Southern Wild, although its magic is not nearly so overt. Most blessedly, Nichols never resorts to voiceover. There is no reflection here. This is Ellis in the living moment, keeping the drama immediate and as raw as his young passions.
A bold, intelligent, 21st century take on Mark Twain with added occult tendencies.