With Mud, writer-director Jeff Nichols has officially become the poet laureate of the slow-burn South — this, even though his last film, 2011’s Take Shelter, is set in Ohio. (Watch it again: The film seethes with the same ancient resentments set amid a similarly isolated topography as Nichols’ 2007 Arkansas-set debut, Shotgun Stories.) His latest effort comes to theaters still riding high on its solid reception at Cannes, and deservedly so. No film since Stand By Me has blended a boys’ tale of high adventure, mystery and a sense of place as deftly.
Along the humid banks of the Mississippi, Nichols introduces best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two boys negotiating troubled home lives, first loves and a potentially dangerous stranger hiding out on an otherwise uninhabited island. The stranger’s name is Mud (Matthew McConaughey, channeling Robert Mitchum in Night of the Hunter), and he wants the boys to help him perform two tasks: getting down a houseboat somehow stuck in a treetop, and reuniting him with his estranged girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon).
Working at a narrative pace as languid as the Mississippi itself, Nichols takes his time unveiling the mysterious tide pools swirling around the titular character. This plodding, Southernized approach allows Nichols to develop the dying river culture of which Ellis and Neckbone are a part, as well as the impact its decay has on their home lives. Remarkably, Nichols also finds space to create an engaging subplot involving an older girl and Ellis, a doomed romance that echoes Mud and Juniper’s.
Filmed with a loving yet unflinching eye by cinematographer Adam Stone, Mud exists as something of a counterpoint to another recent coming-of-age film, Moonrise Kingdom. Whereas a playful innocence suffuses Wes Anderson’s take on the shifting sands of childhood, Nichols’s version boils with a fear of change unique to the South. And that makes all the difference.