© 2013 Ray Wong

The good thing about March and April -- the months before the summer movies come out -- is that once in a while a gem would slip through. A few weeks ago I was impressed with A Place Beyond the Pines. This week, it is a little movie called Mud.

Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two precocious teenage boys who have been best friends since they were little, living in Dewitt. The boys are adventurers and they grow up by the river. One day they find a boat stuck on a tree on an island, and when they try to claim it, they discover someone is already living in it. His name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drifter who is hiding on the island, waiting to meet someone.

That someone turns out to be his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud tells the boys that he grew up in Dewitt, too, and he's come back so he can run away with Juniper, the love of his life. Eventually, the boys find out why Mud is in hiding -- he has killed the last man Juniper was with, who used to beat her up, and the man's family is hunting him (not to mention the FBI is looking for him, too). Mud's only way out is to fix the boat and ship out quietly.

Mud manages to convince the boys, especially Ellis, to help him. A hopeless romantic who is dealing with his parents' impending divorce, Ellis is attracted by Mud's undying love for Juniper. Despite everybody's warning (including Neckbone's, who is forever a skeptic), Ellis believes a man who loves so deeply can't be all that bad. But by helping a fugitive like Mud, Ellis is putting himself and everyone he loves in danger, as the bounty hunters are hot on their trails.

Matthew McConaughey (Magic Mike) gives a tour-de-force performance as Mud. At once devastatingly handsome and also characteristically disheveled and wrecked, he embodies the character's aloofness perfectly -- we can tell that he's a badass; he's resourceful; but we can't fully trust him either. And yet, he is so likable we know that he means no harm to these boys, and he's fundamentally a good man. McConaughey does a great job portraying a complicated man who is on the run, but whose sense of loyalty may be his real Achilles's heel.

Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) is also excellent as Ellis, another complicated character who's sense of hopeless romanticism may be his Achilles's heel. Sheridan's controlled and nuanced portrayal shows maturity of a seasoned actor. Newcomer Jacob Lofland has a more shallow character to play -- mostly as a comic relief and a counterpoint to Sheridan's stoic Ellis. Considering this is Lofland's first role, he's done a great job.

The outstanding supporting cast includes Reese Witherspoon (Water for Elephants) as Juniper. She plays a much different character than those in her recent movies, and reminded us how she impressed us in Cruel Intentions. Sarah Paulson (New Year's Eve) is solid in a small role as Ellis's unhappy mother, and Ray McKinnon (Footloose) shows great strength as Ellis's equally unhappy father. Sam Shepard (Killing Them Softly) is outstanding as the reclusive neighbor Tom, and Michael Shannon (Premium Rush) is in fine form in a surprisingly "normal" role as Neckbone's uncle Galen.

Writer-director Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter) has crafted a highly moody and atmospheric drama that has all the flavors of a modern-day Huckleberry Finn. His writing and direction are gritty, realistic, and brutally honest. There's a retro feel to his story though -- sometimes I am not sure if it actually happens in 2011, and not 1985. But then again, I suppose some things don't change much in certain parts of the country. And that's what is fascinating about this story aside from the colorful characters -- the location is a character itself.

Nichols have developed interesting characters, large or small, that feel real and flawed and complicated. Even the "bad guys" have reasonable motives and we can identify with them, even though we are rooting for Mud and the boys. There are no real villains here, but there are also no real heroes, either. These characters all have problems and issues, and that's why they are so relatable. And the relationships between the boys and Mud are well developed and believable.

That said, part of the plot is rather contrived and riddled with coincidences that seem rather convenient. By careful constructing the story arc and plot, Nichols have sacrificed some of the spontaneity that makes the movie such as riveting experience to begin with. Still, it is the seemingly irrelevant and minute details which embrace the movie with such an atmospheric tone and sensitivity that impresses me the most. I was at the edge of my seat the whole time, and at the end, I care about these characters deeply.

Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon, Sarah Paulson, Ray McKinnon, Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon
Director: Jeff Nichols
Writer: Jeff Nichols
Distributor: Lionsgate
MPAA Rating:  PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic material and smoking
Running Time: 130 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 7

Total - 7.7 out of 10.0 

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