A sublime dramatic coming-of-age film, “Mud” would be the offspring if “Stand By Me” and “Cape Fear” reproduced.
Jeff Nichols, the screenwriter and director of the equally impressive “Take Shelter,” is on a roll. He creates compelling characters we care about. This time, the story of the character Mud (Matthew McConaughey, in what is arguably his finest role) parallels that of adolescent Ellis (Tye Sheridan, “Tree of Life”).
Ellis, along with his pal Neckbone, (Jacob Lofland, a phenomenal newcomer), has discovered a boat in a tree that’s on an island near their riverside homes. The craft has been stranded there by a flood, and the boys are determined to claim it for their own. They tell no one about their find, and begin to explore the boat and its contents only to discover that someone has been living there.
That someone is a weather-beaten, almost-down-and-out fast talker named Mud. Mud, who carries a gun, knows all kinds of good luck, talismans, cottonmouths … you name it, and Mud has something to say about it. He admits to the boys that he has committed a crime and that he’s hiding out, waiting for the arrival of the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon) to meet up with him.
Mud tells the boys he needs “a little help,” which is an understatement. He needs the boys to put together supplies for him as well as help him get the boat, which Mud now has claimed, down from the tree so he can escape from the authorities who are searching everywhere for him, along with a group of dangerous-looking men who seem even more intent on finding Mud than do the law-enforcement officials.
This is the summer that Ellis learns about love. He has a crush on an older girl, who spends an evening with him. He also listens to what Mud has to say about love. And Ellis also hears the tough philosophy of his own father (Ray McKinnon), who is having trouble managing his difficult marriage to Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson).
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Michael Shannon, who stars in Nichols’ “Take Shelter,” appears here as the uncle of Neckbone. I’ve never seen Shannon, an intense performer if ever there was one, deliver a bad performance, and he’s intriguing in his small part. Other notable performers include Sam Shepard as another mysterious river-dweller along with Joe Don Baker (known for his iconic role in 1973’s “Walking Tall” and also for his appearance in the 1991 version of “Cape Fear”) as a man bent on vengeance.
“Mud” is the stuff that wins awards at the end of the year. “Mud” will stick with you.