Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are two young boys, living in a poor section of Arkansas, who discover a boat that has somehow wound up in a tree. The boat is run down but has a living quarter and a stack of dirty magazines. Since it’s already suspended off the ground, is a prime location for a tree house.
To their disappointment, the boys discover that a homeless man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) has already claimed the boat as his home. The boys strike a bargain with him, agreeing to help him by running errands, in exchange for possession of the boat after he vacates. Mud tells the boys to keep an eye out for his girlfriend, who is supposed to show up in town any day. Meanwhile, a mysterious blonde (Reese Witherspoon) is spotted at a supermarket, and appears as mysterious and questionable a presence as Mud himself.
To give away more would be revealing too much, as the story has a few good surprises but is pretty simple, even slight. It feels like a short story, achingly stretched to feature-length. Writer/director Jeff Nichols’ film is 130-minutes, way too long for a tale that needed to be tighter to make a stronger impression. The leisurely pace and length drain all the tension and undermine some great performances, particularly McConaughey’s.
Lofland is amusing and gives an unforced, naturalistic turn but the film’s breakout performance comes from Sheridan, who’s fantastic. The unfolding revelations regarding Mud are a backdrop for the story of Ellis’ journey of discovery; over the course of a difficult summer, he realizes that those he trusts can be deceptive and deeply flawed. It’s Sheridan’s film and the actor, who shined as one of Brad Pitt’s sons in The Tree of Life, proves to be a child actor of enormous depth.
Witherspoon is refreshingly unglamorous in a small but well-played character turn, as is the reliable Sam Shepard, completely at home in a Southern gothic tale. Then there’s McConaughey, who’s one of the best things about the movie.
When a successful, famous movie star is cast as someone homeless, jobless or suffering from financial difficulties, it’s often hard to swallow. If you know the actor or actress in question is typically jet setting and making millions as an entertainer, it’s not always easy to make that leap of faith. The miracle of McConaughey’s work is that, while the character has a steady reserve, there’s none of the brash, cockiness we expect from the actor. Instead, we see real pain and sadness in his eyes and a sense of desperation and pride so deep that he can barely bring himself to ask anyone for help. It’s one of his finest performances yet.
Of course, the film itself has lots of problems. A subplot featuring Michael Shannon, playing Neckbone’s philandering uncle, goes nowhere and should have been cut in the editing room. Also, the ending feels like it comes from an entirely different movie. Considering how subtle the build-up is, the sudden, conventional wrap-up feels unworthy of all that came before it.
Nichol’s previous film was the justly acclaimed, little seen drama Take Shelter, which showcased a great leading turn by Shannon and had a terrific, novelistic story. Mud also has a superb actor in the lead but the screenplay feels like a first draft. There’s a good movie in there, but it’s surrounded by scenes and subplots that should have been either fleshed out or tossed altogether.
Rated PG-13 / 130 Min.