CAPSULE: Jeff Nichols writes and directs a deliberate, well-textured film set in Arkansas river country. Two boys get involved helping a fugitive hiding out on a Mississippi River island and trying to collect his girl friend. Arkansas-born Nichols knows the rhythms of the South and the feel of the country and the people. The languorous setting might capture the viewer by itself if not for the strong performances set into it. Matthew McConaughey's gristly performance stands above the atmosphere. Rating: low +3 (-4 to +4) or 8/10
MUD is set in DeWitt, Arkansas. That is river country, but the story owes more than a little to GREAT EXPECTATIONS for its initial setup. Two fourteen-year old boys, Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), go looking for a boat that a flood lodged in a tree on a nearby Mississippi River island. They find the boat and with it they find a mysterious stranger, a man on the run, who for a few days is making the boat his home. "Mud" he calls himself, and he is played by Matthew McConaughey, delving deeper into a character than we have ever seen him go before. Mud is in the area looking for his old girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and hiding out from the police. This stranger is wanted for murdering the man who had made Juniper pregnant and then who had beaten her so she miscarried. Mud is hiding from the police and also from the murdered man's family who want their own kind of justice. Mud's plan is to lower the boat from the tree, an engineering feat on its own, and once he has collected Juniper to slip away from both police and the dead man's family.
Wherever one looks in this story there is more detail being added. Ellis's parents are headed for a separation. If they do separate a legal snafu says that the houseboat his family has been living in will be destroyed and he will lose his home. At the same time Ellis and Neckbone are getting interested in girls, and before the story is done they we have a lesson about women that they will remember.
The scenes shot outside are drenched in sunlight, but once you get in out of the sun the lighting matches the mood throughout which is solid film noir. Somehow the Southern atmosphere, the life close to the river, even a feel of some menace later in the story, all seem to go together. There is something of THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER and of CAPE FEAR here, and perhaps it is even better handled here since Nichols does not depend heavily on the score to create the effect. The river country has its own dangers from reptiles and from shotguns.
This is director Jeff Nichols' third film and his third film I can recommend. Previously he did SHOTGUN STORIES (2007) and TAKE SHELTER (2011), both films with strong atmosphere. In smaller roles the film is packed with good actors from older films. Joe Don Baker is around. He looks considerably older than I remember him but he still plays someone whom I would not want to anger. Sam Shepard is a local who is a man from Mud's past. Ray McKinnon is a familiar face. Michael Shannon for once is reasonably balanced and non-threatening. There is a lot to like in this film, but McConaughey rises above it all with his tattooed and chain smoking air of menace but still treating fourteen-year-olds like equals.
This is a film with a great naturalistic style and captivating performances and which does just about everything right. I rate it a low +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 8/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1935179/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/mud_2012/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper