Writer-director Jeff Nichols fulfills the promise he showed in
his previous film Take Shelter with a
beguiling fable called Mud. The film
takes place in a small community along the riverbank in Nichols’ home state of
Arkansas, where it was produced. It spins a multilayered story inspired by the
filmmaker’s favorite author, Mark Twain—an imposing role model, to be sure.
Matthew McConaughey heads the cast as a mysterious figure who attracts the attention of two impressionable young boys, perfectly brought to life by Tye Sheridan (whom you may remember from The Tree of Life) and Jacob Lofland. McConaughey’s name is Mud and he’s a wanted man, trying to survive on an island near his home town and hoping to hook up with the love of his life, a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He plans to rehabilitate an abandoned boat that wound up lodged in a tree on the island during a flood. That’s where the boys come in: they bring him supplies and carry messages to the girlfriend who motivates Mud’s every move.
One reason young Sheridan finds Mud so intriguing is that his parents’ marriage is on the skids; he’s attracted to the idea of a man driven by love. Over the course of the film he comes to learn that love comes in many forms, not all of them easily understood.
Mud unfolds at a deliberate pace, which suits this mode of storytelling. We come to feel as if we know the colorful characters who populate the story, including the river people and the townies. This is the kind of film where small gestures and vignettes convey more than long speeches possibly could. The cast is attuned to this idea, and their faces reflect the nuances and grace notes Nichols has in mind. Among the players are Sam Shepard, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Joe Don Baker, and Michael Shannon, who’s been in all three of Nichols’ films. Their sensitive performances are matched by the two boys who dominate the picture. The leisurely Mud may not be every moviegoer’s cup of tea, but I fell under its spell and can’t stop thinking about it.