Ellis and Neckbone, best friends on the edge of their teens, gaze up into the tree in wonderment. Ellis says the boat wedged high up in its branches got there from Hurricane Katrina — at least according to the urban legend. The two boys have come to this tiny island on the Mississippi River to stake a claim: the boat is theirs, which means they won’t have to steal Ellis’s father’s boat anymore. And then Mud (Matthew McConaughey), his face scruffy and clothes beat to hell, emerges from the trees and dashes their hopes: he found this island first, and so the boat his. If the boys want it for themselves, they’ll have to bring him a few days worth of food. Who he is and why he’s hiding out on this isolated piece of land, Mud isn’t saying. Ellis is intrigued by the request, but Neckbone is skeptical. The adventure that follows would have made Tom and Huck a little bit jealous.
Mud is the latest film from Jeff Nichols, who’s stellar Take Shelter from 2011 tells a quiet story about a man who may or not be having visions of the apocalypse. Mud begins as a mystery, segues briefly into a love story, and then detours fully into crime-drama bombast by the end. Mud, the character, will remain an enigma throughout the film. It becomes clear from the outset that he’s involved in some kind of criminal activity, and must wait things out on the island until he can make his escape. He asks a series of increasingly unreasonable requests of the boys, who act as his eyes, ears and hands in town. Often what Mud needs puts the boys in real danger. Ellis goes along with the plan as a means to detach from his miserable home life (his parents are in the throes of divorce). Neckbone agrees, if reluctantly, because he’s bored in his poor backwater town, where everyone looks as though their lives will amount to nothing more than asking if you’d like fries with your meal. Both are fascinated with Mud’s central problem: how to get to his bedraggled girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who’s ostensibly waiting in town for him to carry her away to freedom and paradise.
And I think that’s enough. I haven’t even begun to give you all the information, and that’s probably best, because the fascination of Mud is in the unfurling of its mysteries. Nichols has constructed a clever screenplay that never lets us think the movie is about one thing for very long. However he chooses to steer us, even when its right through the belly of a good old-fashioned Sam Peckinpah shootout, the constant in the story is Ellis, edgy and tough, but not yet cynical enough to believe that good men can’t be capable of true love and valor. He’s played with intense focus by Tye Sheridan, who, based on his performance in this and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, is poised to become a powerhouse actor. Matthew McConaughey is good here in a role of limited range, and his name is certainly the draw, but it’s Sheridan who carries the movie.
I like Jeff Nichols. There’s a subtlety to his craft that sneaks up on you. Take Shelter builds its tension in small layers and reveals its secrets quietly, while Mud erupts in blunt violence. In both films, however, the quietest moments are the most powerful. I put Take Shelter on my list of the best movies two years ago. Mud will go on this year’s list. Not a small feat for a director who has only made three movies in the past six years. I’m looking forward to what he does next.