'Mud' Review: 'Take Shelter' Director Spins A Tall Tale Through Talented Young Actors

(Note: This is a reprint of our Mud review from Sundance 2013. The film opens in a limited run today.)

For his follow-up to Take Shelter, director Jeff Nichols smartly casts Matthew McConaughey as a violent drifter who slides into the lives of two young boys whose families eke out a bare existence on the Mississippi River. Using the gift for gab that any character played by McConaughey must automatically possess, this outlaw wraps the boys up in his plan to achieve true freedom.

While Take Shelter trafficked in heavy ambiguity, Mud does away with uncertainty, at least with respect to the story. This is a straightforward tale that rides on the shoulders of McConaughey and two excellent young actors, Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life) and newcomer Jacob Lofland.

Mud is a riff on Mark Twain, and an exploration of the relationships between generations of men. It could be a Tom Waits song, perhaps a long-lost cut from Swordfishtrombones, revolving as it does around a man with a dark past who seeks to build an escape engine out of cast-off parts, with love as his fuel. The film casts a keen eye on people living a mostly bygone lifestyle, and wraps those observations in a rollicking little adventure that you might find in the yellowing pages of an old pulp novel.

River boys Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) are exploring an island near their homes on the Mississippi, looking for a boat that has been beached high in a tree. They find the boat, and also the guy who has taken up living in it. Mud (McConaughey) is a raggedy man with a broken tooth, a snake tattoo, and a slowly evolving story about the events that brought him to such a low place.

Nichols is concerned with the idea of mentorship and generational breaks. Consequently it could be argued that he is more concerned with truth, and the lesser shades of it used to foster relationships. As Ellis and Neckbone begin to trust Mud, they're guided into an adult world where the forces that drive us aren't always accessible from surface interactions. Ellis seeks a more accomodating guiding hand than his troubled parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are able to provide, but finds that easy truth isn't really all that easy.

As much as I appreciated Take Shelter for its exclamations of deep anxiety, I very much took to the simplicity of Mud. The actors shine in this familiar framework. Sheridan is given ample time to prove that he can project a fierceness that belies his size, with a level gaze that takes in everything around him. Ellis is a determined, inquisitive, vulnerable kid, and Sheridan gives a knockout performance in the role. Lofland, too, is quite good, injecting a dose of adult-influenced skepticism to the boys' new friendship. (It's not all rosy in Mud, really: Nichols' cautious worldview is expressed through those aforementioned questions of trust and guidance.)

Supporting roles are filled out by a stalwart cast: Reese Witherspoon plays more coarse than usual as the object of Mud's affections; Michael Shannon is briefly seen as Neckbone's affable guardian; and Sam Shepard lends a gruff strength as the mysterious neighbor of Ellis. It would be criminal to omit mention of Joe Don Baker, who is briefly seen as a powerful man who isn't prepared to lose a battle. Each adds depth to minor roles, rooting the yarn in solid soil, even when it spins into wild action.

/Film Score: 8 out of 10