Movies: "Mud" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "Mud"
Movies: "Mud"

“Mud” is the kind of movie people say Hollywood doesn’t make anymore:  low-key, character-driven and featuring a solid cast.  As a summer of bombastic blockbusters is about to bear down on us, it’s worth noting that there are still some decent American-made B-movies out there.

Set (and shot) along the banks of the Mississippi River in Arkansas, our story begins with two fourteen-year old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, “The Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland), who’ve discovered a motor boat hung up in a tree on a small, wooded island.  But it turns out they’re not the only ones interested in the boat.  Also on the island is a tattooed, gun-toting stranger who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey, never better).

 

Mud befriends the boys, telling them he’s waiting on the island for the love of his life, Juniper (Reese “Do you know my name?” Witherspoon), and asks them to bring him food.  Neckbone’s the more skeptical of the two, but Ellis -- whose parents‘ marriage is on the rocks -- quickly succumbs to Mud’s countrified charms and starts delivering the goods.

 

As you might suspect, there’s a lot more to Mud’s situation than his love life.  Before long, he is being hunted by the police and by a murderous band of thugs led by a vengeful Texas money man (Joe Don Baker).  And there’s another grown-up in the picture, a secretive river dweller who’s known Mud for years (the great Sam Shepard).  Throughout these plot developments, Ellis and Neckbone stay loyal to their island castaway, braving unknown dangers to bring him the equipment he needs to salvage that stranded boat and to deliver his messages to Juniper on the mainland.

 

“Mud” was written and directed by Jeff Nichols, who also made the critically-acclaimed “Take Shelter” and produced a touching documentary on the late, great Townes Van Zandt.  Nichols brought several of his “Take Shelter” crew along for this one, including cinematographer Adam Stone, whose shots of the river and its wildlife are breath-taking, and music director David Wingo, who provides a quiet, country-driven backdrop to the story.

 

The acting here is spot on, with the two young leads and McConaughey sharing the top positions, ably assisted by Shepard and Witherspoon.   Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) and Ray McKinnon (also from “Take Shelter” as well as the coach in “The Blind Side”) are particularly good as Ellis’s troubled parents.  Newcomer Bonnie Sturdivant is also worth a mention as the older teenager that Ellis is smitten with.  Each of them is totally believable.

 

Ellis and Neckbone reminded me of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, two other kids whose adventures on the big river led them into perilous waters.  Like Twain’s young heroes, these two boys live in their own limited world, barely aware of the adult dangers circling them.  Sheridan and Lofland are two young players to watch.

 

“Mud” is rated PG-13 for language and violence.  I give this B-movie a B-Plus.