Writer/director Jeff Nichols' follow-up to Take Shelter, one of the best horror movies of recent years, is a southern Gothic that, as my friend Jason Alley pointed out, is a great coming-of-age tale in the vein of To Kill a Mockingbird and Stand by Me. Set in rural Arkansas, the story is told from the point of view of Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland). Neckbone lives in a trailer with his uncle Galen (Michael Shannon), and Ellis lives on the river with his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson). When Ellis and Neckbone discover Mud hiding out in a boat lodged in a tree, it gives Ellis the opportunity to be a part of a romantic adventure, helping Mud reunite with his beloved Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), and proves a welcome distraction from the huge changes happening in his life and the looming threat of adulthood and the complications of adult relationships. With a largely embellished backstory and an escape plan straight out of Twain, Mud is essentially a kid in a lot of ways, and it's suggested that he sees himself in Ellis' idealism and chivalrous nature. But as the story unfolds, both characters are forced to face the harder realities of life and growing up.
I'd rather not say too much about how this occurs, not because Mud is full of plot twists but because it unfolds in such a remarkable way, seeming relaxed, almost folksy before revealing itself to contain unexpected depths. Nichols reveals worlds about his characters through subtle details - take, for instance, the many punk flyers plastered on the walls of Galen and Neckbone's trailer, advertising bands that were big when Galen was in his twenties. Then we remember Neckbone wearing a worn, ripped Fugazi shirt at the beginning of the film, and we understand everything about Galen, his life before he became responsible for Neckbone, and his obvious affection for the boy. Nichols' understated but remarkably assured screenplay takes its time establishing its characters and a sense of place, allowing information like how, for instance, a quiet old man who lives across the river (Sam Shepard) fits into the story. Moments like Ellis' first infatuation - and his first heartbreak - have a subtle but universal emotional impact.
Nichols' direction reminds, alternately, of the sense of wonder in '70s Spielberg and Terrence Malick if he were still interested in classical narrative. There are moments in Mud that felt so perfect, so full of warmth and love for these characters and their dreams, that I was practically hugging myself. By the final, beautiful shot, I felt positively euphoric. Other than Jason raving about the movie and its high score on Rotten Tomatoes, I had no particular expectations for Mud going in (between this and Inglourious Basterds, I've decided that Cannes buzz is useless). I'm glad it was that way; as the story, especially in the last third, took turns that I never expected, I found myself greatful to be in the hands of a great storyteller - after this and Take Shelter, it's clear that Nichols should be considered one of the best of the newest generation of filmmakers. If Mud is playing near you, I strongly recommend checking it out - don't read too many reviews in advance, just go see it and let it works its magic on you. Oh, and McConaughey is great in this - it's been a pleasure to see him step up his game lately, and he has the potential to become one of the great leading men of his generation. And he even manages to keep his shirt on for about three quarters of the movie.