In much the spirit of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Mud, a new movie written and directed by Jeff Nichols, explores the lives of its protagonists while limning a way of life lived on the Mississippi River. Two 14-year-olds, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a boat left stranded up in a tree on a tiny island, presumably deposited there after a tumultuous delta storm. The boat is catnip to the boys, whose lives are hardscrabble but not horrid, and bound by the usual adolescent angst; for Ellis, there is also the uncertain status of his father’s employment and his parents’ marriage. Trouble is, another person, one Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an escaped killer, has his own ideas about the boat. Silver-tongued, if slightly sinister, Mud convinces Ellis and Neckbone to help him fix it up, beguiling the former with his romantic tales of star-crossed love and intriguing the latter with the promise of a gun.
Each trip to the island results in Mud revealing more and more about his past, including his feelings for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman he’s pined for nearly all his life. Before we even see the shopworn Juniper, we know she’s trouble, but it’s easy to empathize with Ellis as he bears messages back and forth. He’s serving as a junior Cupid in service to what he feels has to be the kind of love his mother and father can’t even remember. Before long, dangerous characters like the vengeful King (Joe Don Baker) begin appearing in town, and it seems a foregone conclusion that somebody’s going to get hurt—but who? The fact that we care so much about all the characters is remarkable in and of itself, but that the narrative itself is so finely constructed yet not prettified lends even more to the recommendation of this tremendous movie.
Perhaps because he’s from the South himself, Nichols has a special affinity (and respect) for the rhythms and cadences of his characters and their surroundings. McConaughey has received well-deserved praise for his mesmerizing title performance, but much of the story’s success depends on the equally stellar performances of Sheridan and Lofland, who are refreshingly real; their excitement at being part of this new adventure outweighs any lingering worries over potential dangers. In short, they—and all of Mud’s characters—are like genuine people reliant on impulse and quick wits.