At the beginning of “Mud,” we are introduced to two 14-year-old boys, Ellis and Neckbone. Ellis is taking Neckbone out to a small island in the Mississippi River to show him an unusual site he had stumbled upon: a boat in a tree. Sure enough, they find this small motor boat in a tree, presumably the result of a storm. While investigating the site, the boys find evidence that someone else has been in the boat. Then they spot a man they had never seen before on the island. The man tells the boys his name is Mud.
As the story unfolds, we learn that Mud is hiding from the police for killing a man who had abused Juniper, the woman he loves. The boys spot Juniper living in a motel in town. When they inform Mud, he devises a plan to repair the boat so that he and Juniper could motor downriver to the Gulf of Mexico and freedom. Mud enlists the boys to assist him in his plan.
“Mud” takes its time telling the story of characters in a small Arkansas river town. Mud is a mysterious stranger with his secrets. Yet he also has his charm. Despite their better instincts, the boys find Mud’s plans exciting and can’t stay away from him. Both boys yearn for Mud’s attention. Neckbone, who lives with an uncle, has never known his parents. Ellis is distressed by the recent announcement that his parents have just told him they are separating.
Eventually, the police begin showing photos of Mud around town and asking questions. Other suspicious-looking men in big cars arrive in town, keeping watch on Juniper in her motel room. Mud warns the boys to stay clear of these men. He knows it’s time to make his move to rescue Juniper and take off down the river.
As you can imagine, all this works up to an explosive climax between the various parties and the strangers who come to town. Along the way, the boys learn lessons about trust and love.
“Mud” may not be a great movie, but, like Matthew McConaughey’s performance in the title role, it’s hard to resist. Writer-director Jeff Nichols, a native Arkansan, shows his affection for the people who live in small Southern towns and the stories they tell. There’s not a hint of condescension for the people who live on houseboats and shop at Piggly Wiggly. Nichols has gathered a fine cast, including McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon as Juniper. Tye Sheridan, with his expressive face, as Ellis and Jacob Lofland as Neckbone hold their own with the big names.
As summer draws near, the movie studios will deluge theaters with big-budget action and comic book movies. So it’s nice to spend a couple of hours in the world of the independent film. I enjoyed spending time in the world of Ellis, Neckbone, Mud, and Juniper. I think you will too.
Tom Condon, OP