Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two 14-year-old boys living on the Mississippi River’s Arkansas Delta. Their best friends. Brothers even. Modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. One morning, in the wee morning hours – as if they were on a covert mission – the boys sneak onto a motorboat and set out on the Mighty Mississippi. They soon arrive on a forbidden isle to confirm whether or not the last flood actually left a boat in a tree, like all the rumors contend. A treehouse with a hull? A secret getaway the boys set out to claim as their own. Sure enough, sitting up in a tree like mythic treasure is the 27-foot boat. But to their surprise, a grizzled fugitive is already occupying it. His name is Mud.
Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is a man of the run. Reluctantly confessing to Ellis and Neckbone that he’s killed a man. Nevertheless, the boys form a pact with Mud to help him evade the law and bounty hunters hot on his trail so he can reunite with his true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud needs food, information, and supplies in order for him to make his getaway. If the boys can help him do that, the boat is all theirs. Though it wasn’t really necesarry. While he seems like a rough-and-tumble kid, Ellis is a closet romantic. But with his parent’s love disappearing before his eyes, he desperately needs something to believe in. After seeing Mud’s strange sense of romantic heroism, Ellis is all-in. Why not believe in love?
McConaughey plays the role of mysterious river god to perfection. It’s certainly the flashiest role in the film. No doubt about it. His character is cagey, seductively charming and possesses a fierce love for his squeeze that seems to be – at all times – boiling to surface. McConaughey seizes every moment. A performance that should earn him well-deserved recognition come awards season. Praise is also due for Reese Withersppon. Not since Walk the Line has been been so convincing. Neither Juniper’s priorities, nor her motives are quite clear. As for Sam Shepard, I’ve only ever seen him in a handful of films, but as Tom Blankenship, and someone who may or may not have been a CIA assassin, he’s never been more mesmerizing. Michael Shannon, who appeared in director Jeff Nichols‘ first two features, has a small but very significant role as Galen, Neckbone’s uncle. He spends much of his screentime submerged, scouring the river bottoms for oysters, but don’t let that fool you.
The movie, however, belongs to Sheridan. Plain and simple. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure about his performance at first. After all, he can be vocally inexpressive at times, but it doesn’t take long before he becomes the all-consuming beating heart of the story. And although his only other screen experience was as Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain‘s youngest son in Terrence Malick‘s Tree of Life, Sheridan plays the the sensitive and soft-spoken Ellis like a seasoned veteran. In one scene in particular, he and McConaughey have a deeply-felt, explosive confrontation that hits you like a shot in the heart.
Much like his first two films, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, Jeff Nichols’ third film is set in a world of absolute authenticity. After all, the Arkansas native draws from his own experience. His writing and direction are equally impressive. Like a slow-burn, the film slowly unspools into thick, rich layers. On the surface, it’s a suspenseful thriller with adventurous overtones. At it’s core, though, Mud is a bruised romance seen through several fractured souls. A film everyone can identify with. But what Mud and the boys truly discover is for you to find out.
Where the earth meets the water lies Mud.