“His name is mud” isn’t a likely expression for a film to make literal, but writer-director Jeff Nichols—whose previous film, Take Shelter, repeatedly featured the protagonist and his family taking shelter—doesn’t shy away from bluntness or directness. Yes, Matthew McConaughey is Mud, a laconic ne’er-do-well hiding from the authorities on a small island off the Southern coast after killing a man in anger. The movie, however, isn’t so much about him as it is about the pair of teenage boys, Tye Sheridan (from The Tree Of Life) and Jacob Lofland, who happen upon him there and get drawn into his efforts to reconnect with his childhood girlfriend (Reese Witherspoon) back on the mainland. Sheridan, in particular, deeply identifies with McConaughey’s ostensibly pure love—a sense of kinship that blinds the boy to the real danger his friendly outlaw chum represents. And as if that isn’t enough potential mayhem, Joe Don Baker, playing the dead man’s understandably pissed-off father, is gearing up for some serious vigilante justice.
Mud had its world première at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, which perhaps wasn’t the best showcase for it. Take Shelter was an unapologetic art film, mysterious and open-ended, but this time, Nichols has concocted something more along the lines of a ripping yarn, with fairly conventional story beats built upon a sturdy, familiar coming-of-age template. First and foremost, it’s another splendid showcase for the ongoing McConaughey Renaissance: He plays Mud as if Tom Sawyer had grown up and gone horrifically wrong, effortlessly projecting rascally charm with a hint of underlying menace. But there are also any number of offbeat details—tangential to the narrative, but compelling for their own sake—that give the film a unique flavor. The boys initially find evidence of Mud’s existence in a boat that somehow got lodged high in the branches of a tree, for example, and extricating the boat from the tree becomes a major subplot.
But Mud unfortunately begins to develop a sour aftertaste in the handful of minor subplots. Witherspoon’s role as the girlfriend is thankless (so much that it’s easy to wonder why a star of her magnitude accepted it), and her character turns out to be just the most prominent of the movie’s population of fickle, faithless women, each of whom is ready to ditch a devoted man at a moment’s notice. Notably, Sheridan discovers that his mom is cheating on his dad around the same time that the older girl he’s started dating also decides to play the field. Clearly, Nichols means to fuel the kid’s total identification with his lovelorn hero, but in the process (though he takes some efforts to avoid it), he gives the movie a retrograde central thesis: “Women: Give ’em your heart, they’ll kick you in the nuts.” It isn’t emphatic enough to ruin an otherwise good time, but it does make Mud’s title resonate in entirely the wrong way.