Time again for the gems hiding behind the goldmines during blockbuster season and May begins with entrancing promise. Two years after the stylistically gorgeous but substantially vapid Take Shelter, writer/director Jeff Nichols returns to his native Arkansas with a far more thoughtful and assured piece featuring a triumphant ensemble cast and a cleverly interwoven tale of backwater secrets, playing somewhere between Mark Twain and Whistle Down The Wind, featuring the most natural and enjoyable camaraderie since Stand By Me and treading a fine line between an artisan cheddar and a Babybel.
14-year-old Ellis (Tree Of Life’s Tye Sheridan) and his best friend and neighbour Neckbone (Jacob Lofland in his screen debut) go for a walk by the wooded banks one Summer and discover an abandoned and weather-beaten boat lodging high in the branches of a tree washed up after a flood. Doing what any 14-year-old boy would, the lads investigate, rifling through the stranded vessel, playing with engine boxes, gawping at porn, realising the boat is inhabited only moments before mysterious stranger Mud (Matthew McConaughey in another polished, swaggering performance).
Between helping his alcoholic father, Ellis Sr. (a finely balanced Ray McKinnon of Take Shelter and Sons Of Anarchy), and ignored, durable mother Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson – American Horror Story, Martha Marcy May Marlene), the impressionable young Ellis makes regular visits to Mud’s makeshift abode where he and Neckbone join in his endeavour to dislodge the boat from the tree’s grasp and return it to its former seaworthy glory, the drifter slowly spinning yarns and revealing glimpses of his past both home and away, represented by his long-term weakness for former local beauty queen and bad girl Juniper (a bruised and blemished Reece Witherspoon in her most convincing role for years).
Juniper has led Mud a dangerously obsessed dance for years, which may or may not have led to a murder over the border, leading to his head being hunted by a team of bounty hunters led by hardened old school thug King (a welcome return from masterful veteran Joe Don Baker – Charlie Varrick, The Living Daylights) events coming to a head by the riverbank, though Mud may have unexpected support from Neckbone’s oyster-diving, redneck dad Galen (a wonderfully haphazard Michael Shannon – Take Shelter, Man Of Steel) and grizzled hermit Tom Blankenship (a comically moody Sam Shephard – The Right Stuff, Days Of Heaven), leaving one to wonder if he may not get away on that riverboat. But how will events affect the hero-worshipping Ellis? And just why is his name Mud?
Assisted by an eclectic soundtrack and a vintage colour scheme, Nichol’s multilayered yet lightly played fable possesses a timeless, nostalgic quality, evoking life in the sixties yet with glimpses of modern existence closer to town showing the times are indeed a-changin’.
Running at just over 2 hours and unfairly mistimed with regard to awards season, Mud may not suit everyone but it’s an easy going and highly likeable coming-of-age, noirish thriller with much that stays in the mind and, due to the timing of Ben Kingsley declaring war against robot men, there’s every chance of a quiet escape from all that’s noisy in the smaller screen next door.