Direction: Jeff Nichols
Actors: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan
A compelling coming-of-age drama, the third feature film by writer-director Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories, Take Shelter) consolidates his reputation as a major new talent in American cinema.
Capturing the minutiae of life along a river in Arkansas with remarkable precision, the script gratifyingly never lapses into sentimentality. The titular character is a fugitive (McConaughey, effectively de-glamorized) who lives alone on an island in the middle of the river. Intent on reuniting with his long-lost love (Reese Witherspoon), the convict also hopes to evade the bounty hunters on his trail.
We observe the conflicted couple through the eyes of two 14-year-old boys. One (Sheridan) is a carefree lad whose sheltered existence turns topsy-turvy when his parents decide to divorce. His more pragmatic friend (Jacob Lofland) lives with an eccentric uncle (Nichols' regular collaborator Michael Shannon) who woos women whenever he isn't diving for pearl oysters.
Recalling a similar magical-realist image from Werner Herzog's Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), the teenagers' exploits are set in motion when they catch a glimpse of a boat perched high in the branches of a tree. Startled to discover that he is hiding out from a crime of passion, the boys agree to help the man on the lam by bringing him food and supplies. Although he occasionally lies to them, they continue to take risks by delivering messages to his girlfriend at a motel in the vicinity. The plight of the lovelorn convict strikes a chord, particularly with the carefree youngster who is suffering from the pangs of his own first crush. The lingering effects of youthful infatuation as also that of a longtime on-again, off-again relationship are forcefully rendered. The build up of a languorous mood is reinforced by Adam Stone's hyper-realistic cinematography. The wistful background music score adds measurably to the nostalgic sweep of the narrative.
There are several colourful subsidiary characters such as the mysterious sharpshooter (Sam Shepard) and a vengeful vigilante (portrayed in a resonant bit of casting by Joe Don Baker, the trigger-happy sheriff from the 1973 cult classic Walking Tall). The standout performance is by the young Tye Sheridan whose assurance is astonishing for an actor of any age. Don't be put off by the title. Mud is a must-snatch for those seeking an adventure which is defiantly off the beaten path.