"Mud," writer-director Jeff Nichols‘ follow-up to "Take Shelter," might best be titled "Quicksand,"since it doesn’t get bogged down until its final moments. What begins as a sweet and subtle coming-of-age story, told with quiet wisdom, keen observation and a minimum of bombast, unfortunately overloads its final act with incident and on-the-nose declarations that threaten to derail its very gentle power.
By the end, it’s like watching a version of "To Kill a Mockingbird" that’s been choked by studio notes suggesting that Boo Radley should get into a speedboat chase that culminates in Tom Robinson escaping from prison and crossing the border into Mexico.
For the most part, however, "Mud"actually does merit comparison to Harper Lee’s classic novel, in that it’s one of those stories of a summer where two kids learn hard lessons about the adult world but manage to balance their youthful wonder with a more clear-eyed sense of reality.
For Arkansas 14-year-olds Ellis (Tye Sheridan, "The Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), life on the river provides seemingly endless opportunities for both work and adventure. In the latter category, Neckbone has discovered, on an uninhabited island, a luxury motorboat sitting in a tree, washed there in a recent flood. The two boys travel to investigate, only to find someone’s living there – the charismatic, enigmatic Mud (Matthew McConaughey), who is waiting on the island for someone.
As time passes, the boys learn that that Mud is on the lam for killing a man who beat up Mud’s true love Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and he plans to whisk her away in the boat once she gets there. (Neckbone agrees to swap the boat for Mud’s gun.) Ellis and Neckbone become Mud’s intermediaries, helping find parts for the boat, delivering messages to Juniper and to Mud’s former mentor, the reclusive Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard).
Ellis, as the story progresses, needs more and more to believe in the undying love between Mud and Juniper, mainly because his own parents (played by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are drifting apart, and because his ill-fated attraction to slightly older popular girl May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) is a heartbreak just waiting to happen.
Nichols lovingly sketches his characters and their world; he takes his time doing so, but it’s a pleasure to watch the small interactions and the humid reality of secret coves and Piggly Wiggly supermarkets and seedy hotels. The parts of "Mud"that work so well make the movie absolutely worth seeing, even though Nichols (or perhaps his backers) didn’t trust the audience to follow along without loading up the ending with too many gunshots and too many overtly explanatory monologues in the mouths of hitherto less-articulate characters.
Sheridan, memorable as the youngest son in "Tree of Life,"gives an astounding performance as a boy on the rocky path toward manhood; there’s nothing phony or precious about his work. There’s lots of great acting here, to be sure, from McConaughey’s latest fascinating anti-hero to Witherspoon’s bruised minx to McKinnon and Paulson as a loving couple finding that their lives are moving in different directions.
Worth special mention is first-timer Lofland, a native Arkansan who never comes off as anything but natural and engaging. Whether or not he chooses to pursue acting, he’s just terrific here. (And how great is the name "Neckbone”?)
It would be great to have a re-edited "Mud"with a third act as laconic yet thoughtful as the rest of the movie, but in the meantime, even this flawed version merits a look. And afterward, with summer ahead, it’s a perfect time to reread "To Kill a Mockingbird.”