Movie review by Greg Carlson

Writer-director Jeff Nichols follows his arresting and much admired “Take Shelter” with “Mud,” a Southern Gothic-tinted, Arkansas bildungsroman indebted to hallmark novels including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” “Mud” is nowhere near as good as those titles, but the movie’s unhurried pace and detailed identification with its young protagonist balance the busy contrivances that mar the climax. Photographed in Nichols’ home state, “Mud” tells the story of fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan), a houseboat dwelling kid dependent on the river for the precarious livelihood of his family. Dealing with the impending separation of his parents and the pangs of first love, Ellis turns his attention to a mysterious fugitive named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) when he discovers the outlaw living in a derelict boat stuck high in the branches of a tree.

Nichols believably pinpoints the intersection of hope and desperation in the charismatic McConaughey, who is perfectly cast and ideally realized as the hungry lawbreaker whose silver tongue and smooth confidence seduce Ellis and Ellis’ close friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) into aid and abetment. Mud tells the boys about Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), the woman whose purported victimization at the hands of a brutish lover brought about a miscarriage and the subsequent murder of the man by Mud. Despite being hunted by the dead man’s family and the local authorities, Mud is certain he can restore the boat and make his escape.

Like many coming of age narratives, “Mud” develops a theme addressing the question of what it takes to be a man, and the movie has no shortage of fathers, father figures, and males of various ages working out the codes of honor that are preoccupations of masculinity. Nichols locks on to paternal regulations with gusto, even casting go-to grizzlies Sam Shepard and Joe Don Baker in parallel roles. When it comes to the outnumbered women, Nichols is less certain of himself, and Juniper in particular is frustratingly opaque. Mud’s proximity to Juniper puts him in grave danger, but Ellis – whose own romantic pursuit of the hard-to-read May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) – can only see things in terms of his incomplete teenage notions of chivalry.

Even if the film’s female characters are underserved and, as noted by Kimberly Jones, exist only in their relation to men, “Mud” understands the possibility that the gullibility and earnestness of youth can lead to situations in which kids are used by grown-ups. Nichols’ conclusion is ambivalent on the extent to which Mud has taken advantage of Ellis and Neckbone, even though that question is at one point directly raised. The ambiguity of some child-adult relationships can make one’s heart ache as innocence gives way to experience, and Nichols captures the feeling.

The wild, violent conclusion of the movie will feel out of step for some of the viewers who appreciate the finely observed repetition of Ellis’ smallish, hardscrabble day-to-day. The economics of small town De Witt, Eudora, and the surrounding communities are not nearly as dire and catastrophic as Hushpuppy’s environs in “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” but both movies touch on the possibility that their young heroes and heroines are flirting with the epiphany that the world is much bigger than previously imagined.

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