Adventure saga 'Mud' has an earthy natural appeal
05:00 AM, Apr 25, 2013
Mud is a lyrical coming-of-age tale that feels like a Mark Twain story in a contemporary setting.
A beautifully shot, deliberately paced adventure saga (*** out of four; rated PG-13; opens Friday in select cities), it explores romantic love from the perspective of an idealistic adolescent.
Set along the Mississippi River in Arkansas, the film examines strained relationships and looks at a boy’s loss of innocence as he watches his parents’ marriage dissolve.
Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is best pals with a boy named Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who lives with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon). Growing up along the river, they ride motorbikes and sneak off in motorboats when they’re not put to work helping relatives.
Wanting to escape the tension between his parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon), Ellis sneaks off with Neckbone to a forbidden island across the river. What they encounter fascinates them: an old boat stuck high in a tree, presumably deposited there during a flood. The boys instantly resolve to make it a kind of clubhouse/fort. But they learn that someone has gotten there before them. Enter Mud.
Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is a mysterious fugitive whom Neckbone immediately brands as a bum. Mud prefers being labeled a hobo or even homeless. Call him a bum and his hackles shoot up.
The boys are drawn by Mud’s story of chivalry in defense of his lady love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He’s hiding out on the island, he says, waiting for her to join him. A small sticking point: He’s also wanted for murder. Both police and bounty hunters are hot on his trail.
McConaughey is terrific as the enigmatic Mud. It’s easy to see how this charming, unkempt fellow could enrapture a pair of impressionable kids.
Witherspoon’s character is not as well-developed, though perhaps Juniper’s vague persona is partly the point. Her womanly ways are a mystery to the boys.
While Ellis is intent on helping Mud tilt at windmills, Neckbone is the comic relief and occasional voice of reason. But he can’t resist the adventure of assisting Mud in his quest to restore the battered boat to shipshape condition.
Sam Shepard plays Tom Blankenship, a close-lipped guy with deep emotional reserves beneath his gruff exterior. He may or may not be Mud’s father. The film examines father-son bonds, and it’s particularly moving when Ellis and his loving but taciturn dad make tentative stabs to connect.
In its blend of languorous pacing, wide vistas and memorable portrayals, Mud is similar to director Jeff Nichols’ last film, Take Shelter. But it’s not as unsettling.
Endearing and believable, the two actors playing Ellis and Neckbone are pitch-perfect.
The film is about 15 minutes too long and hampered by climactic violence that doesn’t quite ring true. But the boys ground the film, helping us suspend disbelief and tag along on their emotional, but never sentimental, journey.