The film begins in earnest with the singular image of two young boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), gazing awestruck at a boat stranded in a tree on a desert island. When they discover fresh supplies stashed inside, they realise there’s someone living there. That someone turns out to be a mysterious drifter who goes by the name of Mud. He treats the boys like grown-ups, confiding in them, admitting that he’s on the run for killing a man. As Ellis’ parents start out on the road to separation, Mud becomes a compelling – if somewhat inappropriate – father figure for the young boy.
Matthew McConaughey plays Mud as a mixture of smarts and bad judgment. He’s charismatic enough to get the boys looking out for him, fetching food and supplies and keeping him informed. But he cannot get himself to accept the fact that his semi-girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the reason behind his camping out on the island, might not be willing to go out on a similar limb for him. Perhaps he’s gotten so used to spinning tall tales that he’s accepted his own idealised love story.
This is the third in a series of lively, dark films set in the American South that Nichols has made. The earlier two, Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter, had starred Nichols' weirdo muse Michael Shannon. Shannon turns up here as well, a comic cameo in a film that makes great use of its supporting players. Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson are very moving as Ellis’ parents, while Sam Shepard plays Mud’s grizzled mentor (filial relationships, involving both fathers and father figures, are at the heart of this film). The two boys are ornery and believable. McConaughey’s purple patch began here. Witherspoon alone seems to drift through the film without purpose or conviction.
The sentimental conclusion does seem at odds with the menacing mood of the rest of the film. Yet, perhaps this was inevitable in a film founded on grand gestures like a shipwrecked man searching for salvation, a father trying to avenge his son, a young boy looking for someone to trust. Mud isn’t so much inspired by Aguirre, the Wrath of God, Great Expectations or The Night of the Hunter as it is haunted by their ghosts. In a conversation with SundanceNOW, Nichols added Martin Ritt’s classic Hud and Turner Browne’s photo book The Last River: Life Along Arkansas’s Lower White to the list of influences. Take our word for it: Mud could easily go 12 rounds with Hud.
This review appeared in Time Out Delhi.