Over the last few years, Jeff Nichols has gathered a small, fervent following – the very definition of a cult – with two extraordinary slices of southern melodrama: Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter . His third picture is less strange than either of those. Mind you, it doesn't exactly coast along the mainstream either.
We begin with two boys finding a boat stranded in a tree by a lonesome swell of the Mississippi. Oddballs from William Faulkner's bottom drawer stalk the muggy landscape. But Mud does look like a Nichols's pitch for a wider audience. He deserves to succeed.
As you may have gathered, the story is not short on allusions to Huckleberry Finn. After locating the boat, our two young Arkansan heroes (Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland) happen upon a drifter named Mud.
Continuing one of the greatest reinventions in cinema history, Matthew McConaughey plays the vagabond as a flinty combination of hoodlum and wise fool. Mud is on the run after killing the man who roughed-up his first love (a fleetingly used Reese Witherspoon). Desperate for a bit of excitement – and keen to get hold of Mud’s pistol – the two boys carry messages from one lover to the other. Meanwhile, members of the murdered man’s family are plotting their revenge.
Though the kids light out for territories and involve themselves in various monkeyshines, it soon emerges that Mud is the real Huck Finn of the piece. He is the dreamer, the idealist, the great American optimist. It’s hard to imagine such a character existing convincingly in any contemporary urban setting, but Nichols is devoted to a version of the South that moves at an angle to the modern world.
Shot with damp languor by Adam Stone, a Nichols regular, Mud furnishes that environment with a fine array of resonant archetypes. Sam Shepard looms across the river as a retired spook. Michael Shannon dives for oysters in a homemade suit. It all makes for an enveloping experience.
Mud is, perhaps, a little longer than it needed to be, but few sensitive viewers will begrudge Nichols his indulgence. This director is the real thing.