Friday, December 20, 2013
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) spends his day much as you’d expect a 14-year-old would. He lives on a dilapidated houseboat with parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) and, when he’s not helping his father sell fresh catches of fish in town, he explores the rural Arkansas environs with best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who lives with uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), an oyster fisherman. One morning the boys set off to a nearby island in the Mississippi River where Neckbone found an abandoned boat in a tree (left by a recent flood) to which they plan to stake claim. When they arrive a disheveled, enigmatic man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already moved in. At first he only asks Ellis to bring him back food while he waits for a mystery woman. But each time Ellis visits the requests increase, and Mud parcels out more of his strange story. He has been obsessed with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) since high school, and throughout their troubled history she has become involved with abusive men and turned to Mud for help, usually by him beating them up. The last time, however, he shot the man dead, and now he hides on the island. Ellis becomes fixated on this less than requited love story and agrees to acquire various parts and supplies to make the tree-bound boat seaworthy so Mud can run away with his dream girl. In town Ellis discovers Juniper holed up at a nearby motel, but also learns that the murdered man’s father has hired thugs to kill Mud. Relative newcomer Sheridan has a natural, commanding presence, and McConaughey gives his opaque drifter an earthy charm and a menacing reticence. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ film starts out as a boys’ adventure tale and gradually evolves into a bittersweet coming-of-age story that forgoes cheap nostalgia. Like Ellis we want to get swept up in his romantic idealism, but events and Nichol’s world-weary parental figures remind him (and us) that adults are as adept at casual deceit and emotional blindness as feckless youths. Despite an ending that nearly succumbs to action film tropes, Nichols maintains an enveloping tone of almost magical realism.