By Michael Phillips, Tribune movie critic
2:13 PM EDT, April 25, 2013
In "Mud," an evocative highlight of the American movie year so far, Matthew McConaughey slips easily into the role of a haunted, lovelorn killer on the lam, hiding out on an island in the Mississippi River along the Arkansas Delta region. Two generations ago, McConaughey's role might've been taken by Paul Newman or the Steve McQueen of "Baby the Rain Must Fall." That's formidable company.
Somehow, when no one was looking, McConaughey used the last few years of his increasingly interesting and varied career wisely and well: He's now an actor of serious presence and searching honesty.
The moment writer-director Jeff Nichols decided to locate the story along the Mississippi, he knew he'd be courting comparisons with Mark Twain's "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," since "Mud" is primarily concerned with 14-year-old Ellis and his pal, Neckbone, and their brushes with danger of all sorts (along with grace notes of tenderness). These boys are portrayed, respectively and wonderfully, by Tye Sheridan, who was in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," and Jacob Lofland, who is new to the movies. "Mud" owes a lot to them. And yes, to Mark Twain. But this is no slavish homage to a great American yarn. It's its own story, imperfect, overfull, but brimming with vital and human feeling.
Earlier, Nichols made "Shotgun Stories" and "Take Shelter," astute portraits of troubled men and their family ties. "Mud" continues the theme, though it's young Ellis who must make sense of his world. The family home, like those in Elia Kazan's "Wild River," is threatened by demolition; it's smack on the banks of an unpredictable waterway. Ellis' parents, played with fierce honesty by Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson, are splitting up. Their son feels lost, rudderless; he doesn't know what to do with his feelings, let alone his crush on an older teenage girl. By the time Ellis and Neckbone encounter the man called Mud, the boys are ready for a surrogate father figure, however sketchy.
Nichols packs in a great deal of plot and incident, gracefully. Mud, who has ambiguous ties to a shadowy ex-CIA assassin (Sam Shepard) across the river from Ellis, is wanted for the murder of the abusive lout who nearly killed his sweetheart, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Enlisting the boys to steal engine parts for his getaway boat, Mud dreams of rescuing Juniper from her tormentors. The bad men only want her to get to Mud. Ellis and Neckbone become pawns in this quixotic plan of escape. The river and its banks are full of promise and snakes.
There's one aspect of "Mud" where Nichols writes himself into a corner: The climactic gunfire and morally untroubling slaughter feels wrong for this movie (and maybe for any movie). But in an expansive story of fathers and sons and a search for belonging, Nichols takes time and care to make everyone on screen worth watching. Michael Shannon, who appeared in Nichols' previous features, returns here in the droll supporting role of Neckbone's uncle, who oyster dives for a living. The entire adult cast is splendid. Sheridan and Lofland are that, plus something more: Their friendship, as they act it, or live it, for the cameras (the movie was shot in supple widescreen 35 mm), carries epic strength and resilience. Now and then Nichols can't resist a dialogue exchange with a poetic flourish at the expense of forward momentum. "Mud" doesn't need such flourishes. It has so much else.
'Mud' -- 4 stars
MPAA rating: PG-13 (violence, sexual references, strong language, thematic elements, smoking)
Running time: 2:10
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