Jeff Nichols’s last film, “Take Shelter,” was a critical success but failed to find the audience it deserved. Fortunately that has not dimmed Nichols’s passion for making strikingly original films. Just the name “Mud” shows that Nichols marches to the beat of a different drummer. Part “Huckleberry Finn” with a nod towards last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” “Mud” is set in the hardscrabble world of a dying breed who earn their meager living from whatever they can catch in the turbid waters of the Mississippi River.

The story begins when two adventuresome boys (Ellis and Neckbone) venture onto an uninhabited river island. To their surprise a disheveled stranger appears from behind the trees. It is their first encounter with Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a modern Ray Robinson Crusoe. Mud tells them he needs their help to refit a boat washed up on the island. With the boat back in the water Mud plans to embark on a quest which would do justice for a knight of old: win the hand of his long lost love, the fair the hand of his long lost love, the fair Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and spirit her away downriver.

Ellis and Neckbone are immediately drawn to Mud and enthusiastically embark on the adventure of their young lives as they beg, borrow and steal whatever is needed to help him get off the island. However, there is a small complication – Mud is hiding out on the island for a reason. The police are scouring the countryside for him. He is also the target of a vengeful hit squad from Texas. More than these barebone facts you will not pry out of me, as one of the many joys of this film is wondering where this story of childhood adventure, crime and lost love will take you.

Like “Beasts” and another recent tale set in the rural south, “Winters’ Bone,” “Mud” perfectly captures a sense of place. This is not the America of Starbucks and sushi bars. It is a place of ramshackle dwellings edging the river and the faceless nearby own with its sterile strip malls and shabby bars. Equally surefooted is its portrayal of the people who dwell in this forgotten little corner of America. It would be easy to stereotype these folks as “rednecks.” But Nichols is not interested in stereotypes. He wants to show us how his characters’ struggles coping with life mirror many of our own.

Mud has built his life around yearning for a woman who has regularly spurned him. Ellis’s parents have a marriage slowly being eroded by petty conflict. Ellis’s father wants to be closer to his son but is the type of man (does this sound familiar to anyone?) whose idea of parental love is a stream of constant criticism. Neckbone lives with his rude and crude uncle (Michael Shannon) who is not a poster boy for the “sensitive” male. For Neckbone and Ellis, Mud is a revelation. He is the first adult who has ever treated them with respect and they love him for it. Mud’s own father figure Tom (Sam Shepard) is a river dwelling loner who may or may not be a former CIA assassin. Even the patriarch of the hit squad gunning for Mud is motivated by familial love. Mix in Ellis’s naive foray into “teenage” romance and you have a rich and intertwined story of the strange paths love and loss can take us down.

“Mud” is an audacious high-wire act which never makes a misstep. It may be a tall tale but it never strikes a single false note. Special praise is due Matthew McConaughey (who has re-tooled his career from that of a Hollywood pretty boy to that of an accomplished character actor) and Tye Sheridan as young Ellis. “Mud” has been universally praised by the critics. When you see it you will know why.

Other Southern Tales

Here are three of my favorites, all featuring Robert Duvall. In “The Apostle,” Duvall plays an evangelist with a conflicted soul. In “Tender Mercies,” he is a down and out alcoholic country and western singer redeemed by a woman and her young son. And most recently he is a backwoods  recluse planning his own funeral in “Get Low.” Duvall is a national treasure.

Bill Paterson is Of Counsel at Ventura’s Ferguson Case Orr Paterson LLP. 

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