(Jeff Nichols, 2012)
Mud feels like an instant classic.
Nichols' third film gets so much right, and so little wrong, and it also presents a side to him not particularly evident in his first two movies; he now appears one of the leading talents in American cinema, with a fantastically broad range and formidable storytelling skills.
Those are easy to see in the first few scenes of Mud, especially in the effortless way he paints in this world. Here is the American South presented as a vivid, real place, in the form of a small town with all its drag strip bars and chain restaurants, contrasted with the life of the river which has an almost mythic presence within the film. Nichols is good on the subtle and obvious differences between the two. Our 14 year old hero, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, outstanding) lives and works on that river with his mother (Sarah Paulson) and fisherman father. Nichols uses the family to express the conflict between town and country. Parental marriage breakdown centres around Mom's desire to give life in town a try, while Ellis ("I ain't no townie!") wants to stay on the river and work with his dad, despite the attractions of the many girls in town.
The main plot revolves around a discovery Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) make on a small island in the river. There's a boat hanging suspended in a tree, deposited there by a storm. And a man living in it. His name is Mud, and as played by Matthew McConaughey he is a silver-tongued charmer with a love of tall tails and a gospel delivery. He wears crosses on his boot heels, a pistol in his waistband, and is hiding after the murder of a man. He claims to be waiting to meet his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and persuades the boys to bring him supplies, and, eventually, ferry messages to her. But there are sinister, armed men in town looking for him, State troopers setting up roadblocks in order to trap him, and his old friend and neighbour of Ellis (Sam Shepherd) says he's not to be trusted and the boys should stay away. But by then, of course, its already too late...
As a naturalistic portrait of adolescent male friendship, Mud is terrific; sensitive to the subtle nuances and unspoken bonds, never forced in the way it traces the quiet refusal of emotion boys specialise in. And it uses the mysterious forces driving adult lives to cast so much light on the world of Ellis and Neckbone; Ellis is a romantic, yearning for a girl in town, hopeful his parents will rediscover their love for one another despite his father's cynicism, and the story Mud tells him appeals to him because of its old-fashioned certainty about true love. Then we learn the truth about Mud and Juniper, and Ellis' heartbreak is shattering and almost visceral. Meanwhile Neckbone seems more pragmatic, guided by his loving but relaxed Uncle (Michael Shannon), until we realise that he will do more or less anything his friend asks of him.
Nichols has a nice eye and a superb gift for tone and place, but here those gifts appear to have been internalised. Instead, he realises to what extent this story is about faces, and he keeps his lens close to his cast throughout.
Despite the feeling of intense mounting suspense, then, there is enough time to delve into Mud as a character. Mud is a liar, yes, but his fantasising is always pointed and intriguing, and the audience feels as attracted to him as the two boys are.