Mud (Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions, PG-13)

mud 75Being a young boy and finding a boat stuck up in a tree in which you and your friends can play invites all kinds of fun daydreaming.

 

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The new Jeff Nichols film Mud got the attention of the little boy in me right away. Within the first minutes of the film, two 14-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who was one of the kids in The Tree of Life) and Neckbone (newcomer Jacob Lofland), make a pilgrimage via motorboat to a small island on the river in Arkansas; there, they’ve found another motorboat, but this one is stuck up in a tree. Presumably it was in the water when the river level was very high, but then got stuck in the tree as the water level went down. Anyway, as you can imagine, the boys are happy to find it—it’s like a tree house, but way cooler: No one had to go to the trouble of building it, and no one knows it’s there but them.

Or so they think. After climbing the tree to take a look inside the boat, first they find a stack of nudie magazines (which you can imagine makes their new clubhouse all the cooler, right when that didn’t look like something that was possible), and then they find a small amount of food, among which is a load of unmoldy bread—which means someone’s been there recently, and from the looks of it, is living in the tree boat.

Soon thereafter, the boys meet Mud (Matthew McConaughey, here continuing his hot streak that started last year with Bernie, Magic Mike, and Killer Joe), the guy who’s been living in the boat. Mud claims to be waiting for Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his girlfriend, who is supposed to meet him there, but the boys soon learn that, in addition to waiting for Juniper, Mud is hiding from someone and can’t leave the island. The boys take a liking to him (particularly Ellis), so they forge a somewhat shaky alliance: T the boys keep Mud in food (his favorite is Beanie Weenies, which are featured so conspicuously in a lot of the scenes I wonder if they actually paid for product placement), he will let them have the boat once he collects Juniper and leaves.

You might recall that Nichols’ last film was 2011’s Take Shelter, a movie a lot of people really admired, but which left me mostly cold aside from Michael Shannon’s live-wire lead performance. In a lot of ways, Mud works as something of a counterpoint to Take Shelter. Nichols is still a very good director of actors—Sheridan and Lofland are among the strongest young actors I’ve seen in years, and again Michael Shannon turns up in a small role, which is always a joy—but the big difference between the two movies comes in structure, and the success of said structure. 

Shannon’s performance aside, the third act of Take Shelter was definitely the best part; it was one of those movies that had a good enough ending that it made you reassess how bored you were for most of the first part. Mud, on the other hand, is strong from the outset but the third act is shaky, leaving a little bit of a bad taste in your mouth by the time you leave the theater. (Not that the ending is terrible, per se, but it is sort of generic, and not nearly as smart as all that came before.) It’s not a deal-breaker by any means, but it does demote what at first feels like one of the best movies of the year to just a pretty good one.

Even so, Mud gets a whole lot of stuff right. I like that the tone is reminiscent of Stand By Me (it doesn’t hurt that Lofland looks pretty much like River Phoenix in that film), and Nichols is one of the few filmmakers I’ve encountered with the good sense to use Dirty Three tunes on the soundtrack. Besides, the possibilities of being a young boy and finding a boat stuck up in a tree in which you and your friends can play is a scenario that invites all kinds of fun daydreaming, and the film’s worth seeing just for that. | Pete Timmermann

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