This review was originally published on January 28, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.
It may take a cynical approach towards romance, and it may not always be subtle with its foreshadowing, but I'll be damned if Jeff Nichols's "Mud" isn't the most immediately involving film that I've seen in a good long while.
We follow two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), in the early morning hours as they sneak onto a motorboat and head out on the Mississippi — captured in gorgeous widescreen splendor by Adam Stone — in a covert mission to visit a forbidden isle and confirm whether or not the last flood actually left a boat in a tree there. Sure enough, they find the boat, but what they didn't expect was for it to be occupied by the mysterious Mud (Matthew McConaughey), an escaped convict who could use their help coordinating an escape with Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his girlfriend on the mainland.
In this follow-up to "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter," Nichols returns to his home turf of Arkansas, though with yet another change in tone, forgoing a reprisal of classical tragedy of his first movie and the psychological turbulence of his second in favor of a clear-eyed, coming-of-age yarn. Hints of magical realism abound, from the aforementioned tree-docked vessel to the riverbank community that Ellis wants to keep calling home. He's torn between his feuding mother (Sarah Paulson) and father (Ray McKinnon), between the ease of rural living and the looming threat of a move into town, between the reality of hard work and the fantasy of fleeing to an island (and even escaping from there), between the promise of fleeting romance and the delusion of idealizing one.
That wariness towards relationships runs through each of the story threads, whether it be Ellis warming up to a classmate (Bonnie Sturdivant), his parents splitting up or Mud's handwritten pining for his dear Juniper. It's an undercurrent of emotional peril to rival the "Huckleberry Finn"-indebted exploits of the two young boys, a harsh look at adulthood without necessarily becoming bleak about it, and for my money, it's more fascinating than the binary paranoia offered forth in "Take Shelter."
All of that would be for naught if Nichols, Stone and production designer Richard A. Wright didn't convincingly create a lived-in depiction of a bygone South, or if the entire adult ensemble (including Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and, of course, Michael Shannon) didn't fully commit to their hardened turns. After last year's hot streak, it comes as less of a surprise to see McConaughey knock it out of the park as he brings charisma, danger and a critical sadness to the eponymous outsider, but he is nothing if not matched by the young yet committed Sheridan and Lofland. The latter gets the lion's share of foul-mouthed humor to dispense, while the former struggles to balance responsibility with resentments, but both are equally impressive in their ease alongside some considerable heavyweights.
That Nichols is able to orchestrate this entire journey with steady tension and lyrical imagery is a testament to his storytelling capabilities. At the risk of seeming presumptuous, if "Mud" doesn't make it to my year-end list, then 2013 has some mighty movies up her sleeve.
SCORE: 9.0 / 10