Matthew McConaughey as Mud
Tye Sheridan as Ellis
Jacob Lofland as Neckbone
Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship
Ray McKinnon as Senior
Paul Sparks as Carver
Reese Witherspoon as Juniper
Bonnie Sturdivant as May Pearl
Sarah Paulson as Mary Lee
Michael Shannon as Galen
Joe Don Baker as King
A boat in a tree is how it starts. Left there, intact and whole by some inexplicable, inexorable force. Fans of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter” shouldn’t be too surprised by such strange sights. Young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) aren’t when they discover it during one of their daily wanderings.
And as it turns out they’re not the only ones who think so, which also should not be surprising. Anyone who has had to read “Great Expectations” for school knows little boys who wander about in the wild will inevitably come upon a mysterious stranger who will change their life forever. Which is exactly what happens when the boys come face to face with the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
Nichols excels at those sorts of Dickensian fairy tales mulling through the trials and tribulations of the work class against a backdrop of grotesque fantasy. His third feature has distilled that form down, purging it of some of the lingering slowness of his previous attempts.
Most of that comes down to the characters, the most fully formed Nichols has yet put on screen. Gone is the passivity of experience of “Shelter” replaced with people who feel and act, even if they don’t exactly know what it is they are doing or why. Like punching a guy hurting the woman they love, or throwing rocks at poisonous snakes to make them get out of the way.
Ultimately, as fable like as “Mud” can be, with its good luck charms and wards against werewolves and demons and men who salvage using homemade diving bells, it is about real people going through real things. And mostly, for all its strangeness, about love.
Ellis loves high school freshman May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) or at least he thinks he does, but he has no idea what that means to her. Ellis’ parents love him even if they are in the process of divorcing and moving him from the river home he has always known. Mud loves the mysterious Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) despite all the harm she has brought into his life.
None of which would matter if the actors weren’t up to turning Nichols’ words into life, McConaughey most of all. Thankfully they are; the result is a quiet, meditative drama pushed along by a relentless drive to find out what people really are beneath the things they say.
Nichols himself has come along as a director, guiding his cast and crew with a firm hand and keeping what could be a slow movie traveling along at what feels to be a fairly quick pace. There’s not quite as much surprise to be had — once the family of Juniper’s old boyfriend shows up looking for Mud, it becomes more and more obvious where the film most go, even as you hope for Nichols to surprise you.
It’s not a negative that he doesn’t and if the climax doesn’t feel like it quite fits with what else has gone, that’s not the worst scene a film can commit.
Nichols has not yet gotten the acclaim he deserves, but if “Mud” is any indication, that will be coming and in spades. A wonderful Southern Gothic fable with stand out performances from all involved, take a trip off the beaten path to find it. It’s worth your while.