If “Take Shelter” embodied man’s crushing inability to cope with forces beyond his control, and “Shotgun Stories” examined a blood feud from the side of those in the wrong, then ascending writer-director Jeff Nichols blends the turbulent waters of the former with the dirty dealings of the latter to make “Mud.” Confidently expanding his inquiry into the essence of American masculinity, Nichols’ latest pressure-cooker pastoral conjures a wily figure of endangered Southern chivalry whose name is … you guessed it. Sturdy turns from Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon should support a wide release, curbed somewhat by pic’s unhurried pace and heavy regional temperament.
Framed from the p.o.v. of two foolhardy Arkansas teens, 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), “Mud” poses as a mere adolescent adventure tale but explores a rich vein of grown-up concerns, exploring codes of honor, love and family too solid to be shaken by modernizing forces. With trouble brewing at home, Ellis dares his less assertive sidekick to accompany him to an island where rumors tell of a boat stranded high in the trees by the latest flood.
One of those symbolic gestures of youthful independence, the trip takes the boys beyond the boundaries sanctioned by Ellis’ parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) and Neckbone’s uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) — which would be exciting enough, even without the surprise discovery that an outlaw calling himself Mud (McConaughey) has made camp in the wrecked ship. Though everything from police roadblocks to menacing bounty hunters suggest that Mud means trouble, the two boys put unwavering trust in his far-fetched stories, with Ellis especially taken with the idea that this redneck Romeo’s past and future crimes are all born out of love for a gal named Juniper (Witherspoon).
Sending Ellis back into town with a message for his lady friend, Mud cautions, “You gotta watch yourself,” and those words serve as an unofficial mantra for the savvy young man’s growing self-reliance. No doubt Nichols could have told the exact same story in half the time, but the plot here is secondary to the gradual transformation afoot. With David Wingo’s subtle score easing auds into the rhythm of the locale, the film patiently witnesses Ellis’ growing disillusionment with adults, even as he makes his clumsy first steps toward becoming one: punching out a senior to defend a high-school girl’s honor, secretly defying his parents to nick food and supplies for Mud, and so forth.
One part “The Night of the Hunter,” two parts “Huckleberry Finn,” “Mud” may be born of the same rustic sensibility that fueled everyone from Andrew Wyeth to Terrence Malick, but Nichols expresses this outlook in a decidedly personal way. Apart from tapping his lead actor, Sheridan, fresh from “The Tree of Life” — the creative equivalent of eating the heart of another to absorb his spirit — few of Nichols’ artistic decisions seem recycled from other sources, and even that kindred casting choice is fully justified by the plausibly naturalistic way both young thesps embody their characters.
Sheridan makes an especially strong impression, possessing not only the intensity to propel the story through its 130-minute running time but also a sensitivity that reads as unjaded by the world around him — a world fully steeped in the texture of its Arkansas Delta environs without needing to inject the sort of picturesque cutaways d.p. Adam Stone contributed to David Gordon Green’s early pics. That tangible sense of place owes largely to the contributions of Green’s longtime production designer, Richard A. Wright, as adept at building houses on water as he is putting boats in trees.
Stone complements Wright’s work by adopting a looser, more organic visual style, collaborating with Steadicam samurai Matthew Petrosky to bridge the claustrophobia of “civilization” with open-air footage shot either on water or at the remote island hideout. Out there, Mud plays king of the hill, a figure of great mystery to the two boys. Driven by oddball superstitions and his one-track determination to reunite with his true love, Mud comes across as an almost feral figure, benefitting greatly from that itchy unpredictability only McConaughey can bring. However blandly drawn Juniper feels by contrast, Witherspoon is just soulful enough to undermine the male characters’ oft-repeated distrust of women — exhortations rendered, like so much else in Nichols’ script, with a poetically heightened twist on the regional vernacular.
Though the film occasionally grants us access to conversations the boys can’t hear, “Mud” clearly unfolds from Ellis’ perspective — an elegant, intuitive-to-follow style matched by the way adult auds discover information at the same time Ellis does, while calling upon their own life experience to anticipate certain disappointments he is too naive to foresee.