Coming midway through Matthew McConaughey’s Acting RenaissanceTM, “Mud” lovingly creates a nostalgic view of the American South, drenched in golden sunset hues. It’s a gently paced coming-of-age drama telling the story of two young teenagers, Ellis and Neckbone, from DeWitt, Arkansas who have found a derelict boat stuck halfway up a tree on a small Mississippi River island. Intending to claim it, they instead discover that the boat is being used as a home by a strange man who calls himself Mud. Mud strikes a deal with the youngsters: he will give them the boat if they help him while he stays on the island. Meanwhile, Ellis’ parents are heading for divorce and with it, the destruction of Ellis’ home, an old houseboat which will be demolished by the town council once it is no longer occupied. Despite discovering Mud is a fugitive from the law, the boys help him to restore the boat and try to reunite him with his ex-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and find themselves caught up in an old fashioned family feud between Mud and the man he killed.
With a similar feel to “Stand By Me”, “Mud” also owes a great deal to Mark Twain’s tales of Huckleberry Finn, with Ellis & Neckbone taking the roles of Huck and Tom Sawyer while McConaughey’s fugitive Mud fulfils the role of Jim. Writer/ Director Jeff Nichols lovingly layers details and subplots around Mud’s central quest to reunite with Juniper and gives Ellis (Tye Sheridan) a richly detailed emotional journey as he deals with the disintegration of his family, unrequited love and the complexities of his relationship with Mud driving the story forward.
In “Mud”, Nichols has created something of a love letter to his home state of Arkansas, fondly capturing a slightly rose-tinted view of the culture and people who populate the region. The use of a steadicam for filming helps create a sense of intimacy and immediacy, allowing us to follow the characters into the cramped locations and remote areas of the shores of the Mississippi. Blessed with a strong cast, it’s an absorbing, sweet and rewarding character-driven drama which deftly manages to avoid becoming sappy or sentimental.