Arkansas-born writer-director Jeff Nichols specializes in movies about men in crisis. If his new drama Mud lacks the searing urgency of its predecessors Shotgun Stories (2007) and Take Shelter (2011), it shares a quietly superlative technique and an underlying earnestness. The film's signature image of a mighty river, shot from the gliding perspective of a Steadicam, nicely encapsulates Nichols's modus operandi – there is an enchanted-fairy-tale aspect to Mud, but its bright, calm surface only barely disguises a strong, churning undercurrent.
Ellis (Tye Sheridan) is a 14-year-old coping with the slow disintegration of his parents' marriage and its destabilizing effect on his own identity. Despite the sudden stirring of certain adolescent impulses when he's around girls, Ellis still acts very much like a little boy. When he and his best pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) go scampering around their small town in search of trouble, they could be modern-day cousins to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, with a rickety motorboat substituted for a wooden raft. Their adventures eventually lead them to a secluded island where they discover an old boat lodged in the branches of a tree – a loaded visual symbol that suggests the boys have stumbled into a place that they don't belong.
This misplaced vessel is only the second-weirdest thing they encounter on the island, however. First-place honors go to Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a drawling, snaggle-toothed drifter whose easy manner betrays some sort of deep-seated melancholy. Dirty, disheveled and desperately in need of assistance despite his claims to self-sufficiency, Mud is at once a deeply pitiable and hopelessly romantic figure. Ellis gloms onto him; when the kid learns that Mud has travelled to the island to chase a girl, played by Reese Witherspoon, he duly projects his own lovelorn predicament onto the older man's situation.
Sheridan, who previously starred in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, has a transparent quality that's perfect for a young man who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he's wonderful in his scenes with McConaughey, who contributes some expertly comic line readings yet stops short of making Mud into a backwoods caricature. McConaughey's recent rebirth as a character actor in Magic Mike, Killer Joe and Bernie has been predicated on a skillful reconfiguring of his leading-man traits, and his performance here is very clever: It's as if one of his golden-boy romcom heroes had been left out in the elements to rust.
The burgeoning relationship between these two isolated characters – one literally stranded, the other caught between childhood and a harder, more grown-up place – is interesting enough to sustain Mud throughout its inflated running time and various digressions, of which there are too many. Nichols has always been more eloquent with his camera placement than his dialogue, and Mud's script has obvious flaws. A plot thread about a powerful big-city patriarch (Joe Don Baker) who's enlisted some bounty hunters to hunt Mud down for a past transgression rehashes the futility-of-vengeance themes that Nichols distilled beautifully in Shotgun Stories, while that film's star, Michael Shannon, feels wasted in an underwritten role as Neckbone's ne'er-do-well, guitar-picking uncle. Nichols is trying to do too much all at once – to tell an emotional coming-of-age story while also meditating on the psychic toll of violence, while throwing in a dose of Christian imagery (a set of footprints on a beach) for spiritual ballast.
So yes, Mud is messy, but it's also rich and earthy in a way that suggests a filmmaker who is deeply immersed in his story, his characters and his surroundings. A scene where Ellis confronts his father (an excellent Ray McKinnon) about their family's uncertain future is carried by an almost subliminal visual effect: The play of moonlight off the water through a window makes it look like their houseboat is moving even as it's firmly anchored in place. That impression of being carried along by unseen currents works beautifully as an analogue for Ellis's sense of helplessness, and also for Nichols's ultimate control over his material. Even when it feels like Mud is drifting off to sea, the director finds a way to keep the movie – and its audience – exactly where he wants them.