Jeff Nichols is something rare in film right now: an original voice, a writer and director whose work richly rewards careful attention. See his Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter (both starring the exceptional Michael Shannon) if you need convincing. Or you can start with Mud, a typical Nichols movie in that it sneaks up on you all normal-like and then pulls the rug out.
Two Arkansas boys, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best bud, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), are just dicking around like a modern-day Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer. Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone’s uncle (Nichols muse Shannon back at it) don’t want the kids out of sight. So naturally they take a skiout on the Mississippi (deep bow to cinematographer Adam Stone) to explore what seems like a deserted island.
That’s when they find a boat stuck in a tree. You heard me. It’s way up there. Some flood or miracle did it. And in said boat is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an outlaw ducking the police and bounty hunters. Mud’s not one for true confessions. But he does fess up that he plans to meet the love of his life on that island. Her name is Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, springing lots of feisty surprises), and the boys need to go back to town and give her a message.
What the boys discover is for you to find out. No spoilers here. Nichols, an Arkansas boy himself, is going to introduce Ellis and Neckbone to hard, sometimes violent lessons about adult reality. What you do need to know is that the acting is top-tier all the way. McConaughey, on a career roll, is magnificent. His deeply felt scenes with the standout Sheridan hit you like a shot in the heart. In the hands of Nichols, Mud emerges as a thing of bruised beauty. There’s magic in it.