Love, blood, boy – they are all heavily weighted words when used in movie titles, reliably good for a few extra bucks at the box office. Mud, you’d have to think, might have the opposite effect. More’s the pity, for this edgy, sweaty and illogically feelgood drama is loaded with all three of those lightning-rod elements.
Set in a white-trash riverbank community in Arkansas, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are 14-year-old buddies (not unlike Huck and Tom) who encounter Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a killer on the run, when they take dibs on an abandoned boat. Charismatic Mud befriends the boys and inveigles them to bring him food and to scrounge and steal the materials he will need to re-float the boat and make his escape from the state troopers and his victim’s avengers. Though not a western, it draws heavily on that genre’s antiquated (to some) but never buried philosophy of an eye for an eye. Rough justice might not be to the taste of writer/director Jeff Nichols’s natural audience, but so eloquently, if grimily, does he tell his tale that we can’t help hoping for the best for Mud.
Naïve but resourceful, Ellis and Neckbone are easily won over to Mud’s cause and it’s the relationship between the three that is so engrossing. Mud’s predicament has come about as a result of the unfaithfulness of the gal he is besotted with, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). There is a generally resentful attitude colouring the depiction of the female characters, including Ellis’s mama, whose separation from his father means the family home will be demolished by the state, and the older schoolgirl whom Ellis thinks of as his girlfriend. Juniper, so important, is no more than a ‘type’ defined by her skimpy wardrobe – but this is not too serious a flaw, for what Nichols is concerned with are the emotional strengths and frailties of masculine bonding.
Naturalistic performances from all – McConaughey has been a revelation since departing the rom-com scene – and the kids are fantastic.