In rural America, most boys have a place of their own—a clearing deep in the woods, a long-lost trail, some disused shack on the back acres of someone else's property. Before young love or organized sports become a big thing, kids will just hop on their bikes and go until they find that perfect spot where nobody else would ever go.
For Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), that place of their own is a bit farther flung. Ellis lives on a houseboat along the banks of the Mississippi River, and he and Neckbone walk through the woods, climb in a motorboat and chart a course downriver for about 45 minutes until they arrive at their destination. There, on an isolated sandbar, is a boat stuck in a tree. Their very own treehouse, courtesy of the last flood that ripped through the area.
The one problem for Ellis and Neckbone: Someone else was there first. His name, or as much as he'll allow, is Mud (Matthew McConaughey). When he meets the boys, he plays it straight: I'm waiting for someone here, can't really leave, and I'd love some food. Ellis is instantly drawn in. His parents have told him they're separating. Suddenly devoid of anything to believe in, Ellis latches onto the new, mysterious stranger.
The beauty of Mud is revealed in layers, like the sediment plume of the Big Muddy itself. There isn't one particular thing that stands head and shoulders above everything else in this film; it all slowly and convincingly works together. Director Jeff Nichols downplays his foreshadowing to the point that, when there is a payoff, you almost forget he dropped a bread crumb an hour earlier. Perhaps most important, Nichols keeps his story small, simple and in front of him at all times; it's never larger or more ornate than what we see out of eastern Arkansas on the screen.
Mud is an unusual character. He speaks like a mystic one minute and a street-wise hustler the next. He is clearly in need, though, and he and Ellis form a bond of trust that, while rare, is so evenly written that it never feels forced on us or phony. Mud's trouble, Ellis discovers, is both legal and moral. He killed a man in Texas who had beaten up Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). This is nothing new; he and Juniper have that dangerous kind of love that never resolves peacefully but also never goes away. What's different this time is the hired assassins brought into town by the victim's father to deliver cold justice.
McConaughey has been on an absolute tear of late. Nobody else gave three great performances in 2012, and Mud crystalizes where McConaughey is now. He's found great character roles and has resisted the fluff. Two of his next three projects are movies for Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan. It doesn't seem as though he's changed that much; it's probably just a diet of better scripts and patience. But Mud takes the edge off McConaughey's sinister twist in Killer Joe and finds room for his natural likability. Like most leading men who can never truly be character actors, McConaughey has had to mature to reach this point somewhere between the two categories, and it's serving him well.
Tye Sheridan has already appeared in one heavily regaled movie, and while it's like comparing apples to dog races to put this film side by side with Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, it says a great deal about a young actor that he can do both a traditional style of acting and Malick's approach of eavesdropping on philosophical improvisation so well.
Nichols, who has called Mark Twain the greatest American writer who ever lived when being forced to admit the influence of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer on this film, has written sterling characters in seedy situations. Ellis is a young man of action, asking a high school girl on a date, punching boys a foot taller, addressing whatever elephant is in the room. He's always seeking something true, and it comes through without words, just in the way Sheridan has him react. His friend Neckbone is like everyone's first best friend. He begins each sentence with "Shit," and "Son of a bitch" is his only expression of amazement, because he's just learned how to cuss for effect. But he's actually more cautious than Ellis and takes the long view, which provides a nice balance.
Sheridan leaned on Michael Shannon in his first two films, Shotgun Stories and 2011's terrific Take Shelter. He has a smaller role here, but his scenes—like those featuring Witherspoon and Sam Shepard—serve Ellis' journey, not the actor reciting the dialogue. Somewhat ironically, they call these filmmakers "actor's directors." Sheridan is one of those artists even big stars want to work with because he makes an investment in what he gets out of the performer and not what he puts into them.
The impact of Mud is not sudden or cathartic. But give it a couple days and see how clear all of it remains in your mind. This one's a keeper.