Reviewed By Eric Lefenfeld
Posted 04/29/13 15:49:17

"Southern Gothic Done Right"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

I'd like to think that all of Jeff Nichols' films take place in a shared universe, a bygone American South that doesn't quite realize it has been left behind by the rest of the world. His characters feel the weight of being in this shadow land, and they cling to myths and rituals in the hopes of staving off inevitable change. This murky malaise bleeds through into all of his work, and "Mud" is no exception to this rule.

There's no doubt that he mines the same vein as fellow contemporaries Craig Brewer and David Gordon Green (when the latter's not making stoner comedies, that is), but there's something decidedly more optimistic at the core of most of Nichol's films. There’s always still a kernel of hope (or at the very least, acceptance of one’s fate) to be found in those dusty Deep South backroads. The tale of a young teenager getting his first taste of the world's cruelty could seem quaint when compared to the violent familial fracturing in "Shotgun Stories" or one man's descent into mental decay in "Take Shelter," but that ache, that longing, that makes those films cut to the quick takes what's potentially saccharine and transforms it into something beautiful, painful, and all too real.

Mud opens with what feels like a well-worn pre-dawn ritual -- 14 year old Ellis and his scrappy best friend, Neckbone, piloting a rusty dingy toward a deserted patch of land in the middle of a lake. Neckbone's heard rumors of a curious artifact left behind by the last major flood. The boys arrive to find a fully intact boat lodged high in a tree. It's the first bit of magical realism in a film positively laden with surreal little flourishes. Like any 14 year old boys worth their salt, they immediately claim ownership of this moldy, porno mag-laden kingdom, but they're quick to discover there's already a tenant onboard.

Matthew McConaughey's Mud seems to materialize out of nowhere with a chip in his tooth, a gleam in his eye, and a gun in his waistband. From the get-go, he's spinning seductive tales about his lucky shirt, his shamanically-charged boots, and the long lost girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who's waiting back in town, so eager to be heroically swept off her feet. Ellis, whose own home life is both literally and figuratively collapsing in front of his eyes, is immediately taken with the charming fugitive's mythical half-truths about life and love, and the boys begin providing aid, although it quickly becomes clear that underneath all of Mud's sweet talking hides a darker underbelly than what they're prepared for.

McConaughey continues to ride the resurgence he's been experiencing for the last few years, but what's most remarkable is that the character of Mud is only a slight tweak on the roguish archetype that the actor has come to embody over his career. In interviews, Nichols has mentioned writing the role of Mud with McConaughey specifically in mind, and it shows. He’s only a couple steps removed from the sexy charmer on display in all of the interchangeable romantic comedies that used to be his bread and butter, but there's an insecure posturing underneath it all -- a falseness that reveals itself more and more as the stakes are raised. It’s reminiscent of Paul Thomas Anderson's use of Adam Sandler in “Punch Drunk Love.” At the core of the performance, there’s not much that hasn’t been seen before, but what could easily be just another caricature has finally been given a proper context, and that makes all the difference.

The film might be named after Mud, but the performances of Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland as the two young friends is the true driving force of the story. Sheridan pretty much has to carry the film on his shoulders, a tall order for any actor, let alone a young teenager. The pair have an effortless rapport together, capturing the rhythms of two good friends that are close enough that only a bare minimum of communication is required. They look and sound like real kids: messy, profane, and more innocent than they’d ever let on.

This notion of self-delusion in the name of love, whether it be directed toward a high school crush, spouse, or offspring is weaved throughout several other subplots, perhaps most elegantly in the quiet implosion of Ellis' parents' marriage, and Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson both make the most of their somewhat limited roles as the feuding pair. A veritable Murderer’s Row of character actors (Joe Don Baker, Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard) bring depth to even smaller roles, all echoing different facets of the same idea. It's a surprisingly crowded story, but Nichols is able to wrangle these threads into something that might not be totally cohesive, especially as the previously languid story starts to pick up steam toward the end -- but it's never not affecting.

Someone out there is probably calling Jeff Nichols a one-trick pony. Or labeling him a purveyor of poverty porn. It's hard to deny that he's done little to step out of the country fried wheelhouse he built with his earlier films, but if he continues turning out work as effective as "Mud," he can tell stories about fractured lives in small Southern towns for as long as he sees fit.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.