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Two Arkansas teens befriend a mysterious drifter in Mud, a picture so good that it deserves to stand alongside the best coming of age movies. Like Winter’s Bone and Beasts of the Southern Wild, it fully immerses us in both observant cultural geography and the bone deep pangs of innocence lost.
Directed by 26-year-old Jeff Nichols (of 2011’s similarly masterful Take Shelter) and featuring moving work from young Tye Sheridan (Tree of Life) in a breakout performance, it’s a movie about a wide-eyed child’s limited vantage point of adult dramas and the sad realization that great love always hurts. You believe in something, trust people, give them your all and they do what they can to break you, usually not on purpose. There’s considerable “plot” in Mud and much adventure, but it’s defined by these sad undercurrents.
Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Sheridan) and best buddy Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live on the banks of an Arkansas river in a hardscrabble community of houseboat dwellers. Ellis’ parents, Mary Lou (Sarah Paulson) and Senior (Ray McKinnon), are on the verge of divorce, the family home scheduled for demolition in the split. Neckbone, who has never met his own parents, resides with wild card uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), who makes a living diving for river oysters. The film very quickly establishes that these are real people with real bonds, not easy movie depictions of the downtrodden.
After Neckbone discovers a boat lodged in a tree on a deserted, nearby island, likely the product of a former flood, the boys hatch a plan to claim it. But they soon discover the waylaid watercraft to be the makeshift shelter of a mysterious stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey), hiding out from bounty hunters after killing the man who wronged his one true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Mud enlists the boys’ help getting the boat out of the tree and primed for for a river escape, and lonely Ellis jumps at the chance to bond with the exotic criminal, bringing him food and supplies and finding an unexpected friendship. One of the great strengths of Nichols’ absorbing screenplay is its depiction of the mutual trust that grows between the two, a believable symbiosis of respect and need and sacrifice.
Juniper, a put-upon bottle blonde whose long legs attract attention in the local Piggly Wiggly, is, we think, waiting for Mud to rescue her. Fascinated by the prettiest woman they’ve ever seen and whom they witness being brutalized in a cheap motel room, the boys become Mud’s personal courier with his lost lady, trafficking love notes to her. Ellis, heartbroken over his parents’ impending split and schooled by his father that women are only good for hurting men, is taken by Mud’s romantic commitment to Juniper, transfixed by the idea that he can somehow save their troubled romance.
Meanwhile, Ellis defends the honor of an older teen girl named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) who takes a chaste liking to him, giving him his first kiss, and first broken heart.
The great Joe Don Baker turns up as the revenge-bent father of the murdered man, and the picture expectedly moves toward a third-act showdown, but not before Mud teaches Ellis what real loyalty is in a superb sequence involving a snakebite, a motorbike and a hospital.
The ensemble is note-perfect. There’s a strong family confrontation scene late in the picture expertly acted by Paulson and McKinnon, and both McConaughey and Witherspoon are alternately hopeful and beaten down. But the picture belongs to Sheridan, a remarkable young actor who holds the screen impressively as a latter day Huckleberry Finn, a resourceful teen down on the delta, looking to be important and valued and useful and loved, when adult examples of such around him fall like dominoes.
There’s only one small bone to pick with Mud, which has to do with the unnecessary final scene and a too-quick cut to a jarring musical selection over the closing credits that all but breaks the picture’s spell.
What Mud is really about—a young man looking for confirmation that love can exist and survive in a harsh world—is profound. Your heart goes out to the kid, and Mud deserves to be remembered as one of the year’s best movies.