Good Movie? It's Name Is 'Mud'

Matthew McConaughey plays the titular rouge with a heart of gold in "Mud," a drama set in the swamps of the South.
Matthew McConaughey plays the titular rouge with a heart of gold in "Mud," a drama set in the swamps of the South.
Posted: April 26, 2013

JEFF NICHOLS might be the best American director whose work you don't know.

The Arkansas filmmaker made the little-seen "Shotgun Stories," then "Take Shelter," the movie that should have given him a big-time profile but somehow didn't.

Now Nichols has made "Mud," a movie that confirms his talent and has him again working expertly in the clay of his native South.

It's a contemporary but very Twain-y coming-of-age story about two young, feral, river-dwelling teens whose summer project is aiding and abetting a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey). The man is holed up on a forgotten island, dodging police and trying to rendezvous with a woman (Reese Witherspoon) whose honor he has a habit of defending in an extra-legal way.

His name is Mud - a joke, because we sense it's as much a destiny as a name. Mud is an obvious B.S.-er, probably a loser, but a colorful and captivating one - McConaughey plays it to the hilt, as he's become so good at doing.

Mud is trouble, but his situation captivates confused teen Ellis (Tye Sheridan), who has a Mud-like habit of punching the loutish suitors of girls he wants to date. His own parents are on the verge of splitting up, and he desperately wants to believe in love.

So Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) conspire to help Mud restore an abandoned boat - the getaway craft, the hopeful symbol of everything Ellis wants to believe.

The plan is shaky, but "Mud" itself is surefooted. Lovely writing, some top-notch performances, not least by Lofland - I doubt I'll see a funnier or more indelible supporting performance this year. Michael Shannon has a small, droll role as an oysterman. Sam Shepard is a mysterious neighbor.

There is even a captivating cultural layer - a snapshot of a dying river culture. When Ellis' parents split, he'll move in town, his houseboat will be torn up, as municipal authorities reclaim the river for the tides. And with it, Ellis' free and unfettered life, his childhood.

"Mud" isn't perfect - it's too dang long. But that feels like a quibble next to what the movie manages to accomplish. Among other things, to establish Nichols as the real deal. The next phase for a guy this good is usually Hollywood. Or maybe not. It looks like Hollywood, via McConaughey, Witherspoon, et al., is coming to him.


Blog: philly.com/KeepItReel

Online: ph.ly/Movies

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