After a recent flood, two young boys leave their riverbank homes along the Mississippi in search of a boat they believe is stranded up a tree on a nearby island. They find the boat, and it is, indeed, lodged up in a large tree, like a ready made tree house, secured in place by thick branches. They also find that the boat is now inhabited by a man they come to know simply as Mud.
“I grew up around here,” Mud tells the two boys, “But I been away awhile.”
Mud (Matthew McConaughey) is in hiding. He tells the boys what sounds like a whimsical tale of love and longing and how he is waiting for the love of his life to meet him so that they can escape some bounty hunters who want him dead. “She’s like a dream you don’t wanna wake up from,” Mud tells the boys when thinking of his woman.
The surprising thing about Mud’s tall tale, made all the more lyrical because of McConaughey’s customary and winning southern delivery, is that it’s all true, and the boys become a part of his story as they help him get the boat down from the tree, repair it and have it ready in order for Mud and his woman to motor away, unseen by the bad guys, along the river.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols has sighted his inspiration as being from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, but there’s also a little Charles Dickens buried in there. As in Great Expectations where young Pip feeds the escaped convict Magwitch with food stolen from Pip’s home, young Ellis (Tye Sheridan) assists the Arkansas fugitive by stealing food from his mother’s kitchen and bringing it back to Mud’s hiding place along the river. Like the desperate Magwitch, Mud is an escaped convict, having killed a man. “He was a bad piece of business,” Mud explains to the boys.
The film’s gorgeous wide screen cinematography by Adam Stone never romanticizes the area with a picture postcard style of prettiness; instead, it captures the splendor of the Mississippi revealing its wide open spaces as a part of the country in which you would love to be lost. The river’s water doesn’t have the clarity or the cleansed look of a Mediterranean blue, but the appearance of a dirty brown, underlining the potential murkiness of a situation the boys are wading into by assisting the desperate, though lovesick Mud.
This is a good, ensemble cast, lead by a charming though potentially dangerous McConaughey, with solid support from not only the two young boys who appear to be natural products of the riverbank area, but also from Reese Witherspoon as the love of Mud’s life. There’s also Michael Shannon, Sarah Paulson, Sam Shephard and a surprise appearance from Joe Don Baker.
Director Nichols has made a surprisingly engaging tale of love, broken hearts, and growing up, buoyed by a relaxing story telling style that floats along at a casual pace like a piece of driftwood on the Mississippi. Like that driftwood, it might at times feel as though things are going nowhere, but the story eventually arrives, and even though it’s probably about fifteen minutes too long, the film engages at most stages along the way.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 Length: 130 minutes Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)