The third feature by the Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols is called Mud and it’s his least muddy: Its storytelling is fluid, its emotion transparent. It has an easy pace that carries you along, like a raft on the Mississippi, where much of the film is set. In its first scene, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) sneaks out of his Arkansas houseboat before dawn—past the lighted kitchen, where his mom is bewailing his dad’s unresponsiveness—and meets up with his ruffian pal, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). They’re headed to a river island on which Neckbone saw a boat in a tree, evidently thrown up by a storm. Neckbone wants to claim ownership. But it turns out someone’s living there—and watching every move the boys make. He’s grizzled, emaciated, with a cigarette hanging from his mouth and a gun tucked into his ever-tightening belt. He’s played by Matthew McConaughey. His name is Mud. And his name will really be mud if he’s found by the cops and certain other lethal persons.
Most of Mud (I’d say 98 percent) is viewed from the vantage of Ellis, a boy with a lot on his pubescent mind. His mom (Sarah Paulson) is about to give his bewildered dad (Ray McKinnon) the heave-ho and move with her son from their houseboat to an apartment in town. The fear of loss (boat = childhood) is offset by the stirrings in his heart for May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a high-school girl maybe half a foot taller. Ellis throws himself on a senior he sees manhandling May Pearl, who wasn’t in as much distress as your average storybook damsel but is obviously flattered to have been “rescued.” Then he discovers Mud’s crime was on account of an endangered woman, too. And not just any woman. Her name is Juniper and she’s “like a dream you don’t wanna wake up from,” says Mud, all but sculpting the air with his long, thin fingers. Later, in town, Ellis sees a woman (Reese Witherspoon) he knows must be Juniper going into the Piggly Wiggly wearing dark glasses, cutoffs, and fuck-me pumps. Ellis knows that he and Mud are the same: They both believe in risking everything for love. And he knows he must help Mud be with Juniper—at any cost.
For Nichols, Mud is a change of pace—and point and tone. It’s friendlier, shapelier, and more resolved than his Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, with none of those pesky dissonances and loose (bleeding) ends. In Shotgun, two sets of brothers by the same father (who’d abandoned the first family, then allegedly found God with the second) trade ugly words at the site of the old man’s grave, and Nichols channels all his (and, I’d argue, humanity’s) moral confusion into the blood feud that ensues. His second film, Take Shelter, is more feverish, his protagonist (Michael Shannon, also the star of Shotgun) a husband and father eaten alive by the fear of losing his wife and child to whatever dark forces (he has visions) are about to descend on the Earth. We wait for Nichols to put us back on terra firma at the end of Take Shelter, but he doesn’t. He lets the nightmare win—as it always will.
But the moral universe of Mud is settled. The parallels between young Ellis and young-at-heart Mud are tidy, and when the film introduces Mud’s ex-military father figure Blankenship (Sam Shepard) and the old man tells Mud he’ll have to dig himself out of his own mess this time, you kinda-sorta know Blankenship will come back into the picture the way similar patriarchs do in the bonehead action movies that Mud suddenly looks like. (A posse of bad guys comes to town led by Joe Don Baker, whose character Mud likens to “Old Scratch.”)
It’s hard to believe Nichols thinks he can get away with all this and harder still to believe he does. It’s the quality of the attention that he brings—his focus—that makes his work so engrossing. It helps that young Sheridan (he was in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life) has such a keen, wary, self-contained presence. He’s internal—until he isn’t and interrupts, throwing himself at the latest big bad wolf. At his side is young Lofland’s Neckbone, a hilarious foil, the same size and shape as Ellis but with one eye always on the main chance. All the actors are all there. I never thought I’d get such a kick out of watching Shepard be “iconic” again—but he now can hold his pose while letting all kinds of impudent subtext bubble up.
Does anyone still doubt McConaughey’s acting smarts? In Mud, he drawls and barks and gives his weird timing free rein, with the result that every line that emerges from his twisted, sunken face lands somewhere, sometime unexpected. Witherspoon’s role is smaller and less demanding, but what a pleasure it is to see her (like McConaughey) liberated from the minstrel show that is the studio rom-com—where actors make fortunes by caricaturing everything about themselves that made them stars.