Matthew McConaughey is the personification of mud, physically and emotionally.
“Mud” is the story of a lovelorn loser and the teenage boys who help him evade the avenging family of a man he’s killed.
It’s also a love story in which everyone loses. And a bittersweet coming-of-age story — for Mud (McConaughey) as well as for the boys.
While the plot and the surroundings would lead one to assume that the film is going to be an emotional downer, it is actually a lively adventure story in which the viewer is completely caught up in the movements of a set of quirky, but compelling characters.
Set in a bleak small town in Arkansas, the film is reminiscent of last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in its remoteness and squalor. Like the father and daughter in “Beasts,” 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his parents live on a ramshackle houseboat on a spur of the muddy Mississippi.
Ellis’ parents have reached that point in their marriage where they are fed up with each other, with poverty and with the sense of defeat. After a lifetime on the houseboat (it was her father’s bequest to her), Ellis’ mother (Sarah Paulson) is ready to move on. His father (Ray McKinnon), torn between love and irascibility, is prepared to let her go.
But Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), have become involved in the life of Mud, who is taking temporary refuge on a forested island in the middle of the river while he waits for his long-time lover Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) to run away with him.
Meanwhile, he is living in a small boat lodged in a tree, like a mobile tree house. But this house isn’t going anywhere. It’s in a sad state of disrepair. The implausible idea of a boat lodged in a tree by a passing tornado, however, becomes an authentic possibility when one sees the devastating effects of the recent tornado in Oklahoma.
The film, when you get right down to it, though, is about love. Parental love between Neckbone and the uncle (Michael Shannon), who takes care of him; between Mud and Tom, the man who brought him up (played by a stocky but still nimble Sam Shepard); and between Ellis and his parents.
There is also the hopeful love story of Mud and Juniper, and the first love of Ellis for an “older” girl at school.
McConaughey, known for repeatedly baring his torso, does it here as well, but he is so unshaven, uncombed and grimy as to personify every woman’s concept of the “bad boy” that she is drawn to at least once in her life. McConaughey gives an Oscar-worthy performance as this tacky, fantasizing, but altogether swashbuckling adventurer. And he is surrounded by a notably excellent cast, tightly directed by Jeff Nichols helming his third feature film. (His first was “Shotgun Stories” in 2007 and then “Take Shelter” in 2011.)
“Mud” was nominated for the Palme d’Or prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, but lost to the French film “Amour.”
“Mud” is playing locally at the Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex. For showtimes, check page 13 of today’s Daily Press.
Cynthia Citron can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.