It’s tremendous. And if the stars don’t align for Matthew McConaughey getting some kind of Oscar nomination this year(between this and the upcoming “The Wolf of Wall Street”)than there must be something out of whack in the universe. Talk about a mid-career resurgence after toiling in crap like “Failure to Launch” and “Fool’s Gold” just a few years ago. And 34-year old helmer Jeff Nichols is quickly becoming one of the hotshot indie directors of the new millenium, following up 2011’s terrific “Take Shelter” with this, after his highly praised 2008 debut, “Shotgun Stories”. An Arkansas native himself, Nichols immerses “Mud” in what feels like such authentic local flavor(having never been to the state, I can only guess that it’s accurate—some google research seems to back me up, however)that I could almost feel the humidity in the Mississippi River community being presented. The setting and the adventure of the two young boys of the story, would make Mark Twain proud. Nichol’s screenplay is dripping with such nostalgia and melancholy and regret—that it’s palpable. This man is a major talent. “Mud” joins “Before Midnight” and “Byzantium” as early contenders for my Top Ten films of 2013.
“Mud” opens with two bored boys in their early teens, making their way to a small river island to locate a boat that has become wedged high in a tree from a flood. The area is desolate, so no one seems to realize it’s there, and the friends intend to utilize it as a clubhouse. However, when they climb up into it, they find some freshly bought food—and realize that someone must be using it already. When Ellis(a fantastic Tye Sheridan, who was also one of the young brothers in 2011’s “The Tree of Life”)and his buddy “Neckbone”(fine support work from Jacob Loftland)amble back down to the shoreline, they come across a 40ish man who introduces himself as Mud(Mr. McConaughey). Mud eventually confesses that he’s a fugitive hiding from law enforcement for what he deems an understandable violent crime. He’s also searching for his lost love Juniper(an effective Reese Witherspoon, finally appearing in something other than some lousy romantic comedy), who he believes is in the vicinity. Mud recruits the boys to bring him some food, and also wants them to help him get the damaged boat down from the tree. And then after he locates Juniper he can motor off undetected, with his girl, to safety. The boys agree to do it, if at the end of their work Mud gives them his .45 handgun—and the deal is struck. Ellis becomes quite attached to Mud over the ensuing days. His parents are about to get divorced, and he fears his young world is starting to crumble. Soon the boys happen across Juniper, as well as some shadowy figures that are out to kill Mud. And Mud also asks them to enlist the services of Ellis’s mysterious neighbor Tom(Sam Shepard, not overbearing for a change). Ellis finally begins to wonder just how much Mud is bending the truth.
“Mud” is a coming-of-age story that obviously invokes Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”, but also recalls the feel of 1986’s “Stand by Me”(along with the novella “The Body” by Stephen King, upon which it’s based)—and even the 2010 remake of “True Grit” in its third act. Mr. McConaughey and the youthful Mr. Sheridan give the standout performances of the film, but they receive fine support work from the aforementioned cast members, along with Nichols regulars Michael Shannon and Ray McKinnon. Oh, and the lately ubiquitous Sarah Paulson is pretty darn wonderful here too. Does the story finally go awry towards its finale? I don’t believe so. For one thing, I believe a couple of issues, some seem to have, are being misinterpreted. In fact, even when it’s not surprising, I found “Mud” to be consistent, well-plotted and engaging. It’s a well-woven tale full of authentic emotion, and its melancholy lingers long after the denouement. It’s a grabber, that hopefully won’t be forgotten come Oscar time. I can’t stand the wait for Jeff Nichols next outing. Grade: A