14-year-old Ellis lives on the Mississippi River in Arkansas and hangs out with his best pal, Neckbone. While exploring the waters one day they find a boat suspended in a tree on an island, the result of a flood. Pretty neat, but things get even better when they meet Mud, the man living in the boat.
Mud is everything two teenage boys could ask for from an outlaw role model - he's a handsome, strapping fellow who talks to them like adults, not kids. He's got scary cool problems - he shot a man for messing with beautiful Juniper, the woman of his dreams. Throughput his life, Mud has received support and counsel from a mysterious ex-military assassin, who happens to be Ellis' reclusive neighbor. But now, with bounty hunters trying to track him down, he needs the help of the boys to reunite with his beloved Juniper and escape his pursuers.
Mud is larger-than-life and, according to the aforementioned neighbor, a lying romantic whose tendency to overreact has turned him into a menace to himself and others. The criticism just makes the boys more loyal to their friend. There's big conflict between Ellis' parents and he's in no mood to question his new hero. Maybe he is dangerous, but he's not threatening to break up the family home.
Mud is a coming-of-age story with a suspense tale woven in, along with bits of mysticism and an ominous feel that builds slow and steady. You'll need to adjust to the deliberate pacing to best enjoy the flow. The film was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who proved himself a master of ominous movies with 2011's excellent Take Shelter. His screenplay has a couple of bumps, but is structurally sound. His movie celebrates the physicality of river life while offering well-drawn characters deftly- portrayed by a strong cast.
Matthew McConaughey stars as Mud and the actor known for his laid-back demeanor and frequent shirtless scenes is in peak form (yes, he shows off his fine physique, but the scene fits into the film's emphasis on physicality, so it doesn't feel like a cheat). As we learn more about Mud it becomes clear that despite his imposing frame, he's as much a boy as Ellis and Neckbone.
Tye Sheridan plays Ellis, with Jacob Lofland as Neckbone. Together they reminded me of Wil Wheaton and River Phoenix in Stand by Me. The strong cast includes Reese Witherspoon as Juniper, Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis' parents, Sam Shepard as the reclusive neighbor, plus Michael Shannon, Joe Don Baker and young Bonnie Sturdivant as Ellis' first crush.
About the screenplay bumps. Roger Ebert once wrote about the "law" of movie economics, which states that due to time and budget constraints, filmmakers generally don't showcase colorful details unless they will later be crucial to the plot. The colorful detail in Mud is a small pit frequented by cottonmouth snakes and leeches. Its insertion is not subtle.
And then there's the motel. Mud sends Ellis to a motel, where he meets Juniper and dives in to protect her from a violent adult. It is made glaringly clear that Mud's pursuers are watching Juniper's room at the motel. Despite knowing this, Ellis meets up with Juniper two more times by going to her room and knocking on her door. What the hell? The boy is smart. Why doesn't he call her and arrange a diversion or something? Even more annoying, once he returns to the motel, where the hell are the guys watching the place? It's the one essential location to monitor - they told us that - so where are they?
The glitch is irritating, but the rich characters, engaging relationships and striking atmosphere easily make up for a few annoying moments. Mud is memorable.