Born in Little Rock, Ark., writer-director Jeff Nichols has slowly established himself as a strong force in independent film with his first two features, “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” which took place in rural, working-class communities and starred the serpent-eyed Michael Shannon.
In his third film, the new “Mud,” a slightly bigger star, Matthew McConaughey, takes over the lead; Shannon gets a potent little supporting role.
Nichols again explores a favorite theme, inaction in the face of violence, with chilling results. The story centers on two boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), whose families live and work by the Mississippi River.
On a small, tucked-away island, they make a unique discovery: a boat in a tree. Taking a clandestine trip to see it, and hopefully claim it, they find something even more startling. Someone is living in it.
Known only as “Mud” (McConaughey), the cagey character seemingly materializes from nowhere, giving the impression he is mysterious and dangerous.
He tells the boys he is waiting for a beautiful woman and sends them for food and parts for the boat. Over time, they piece together his story.
Reese Witherspoon plays the girl, Juniper, who, at first appearance in the distance, could be the most beautiful girl in the world. But eventually she becomes more human, and terribly troubled. Simultaneously, Ellis begins his own first tentative, comparative steps toward relations with the opposite sex.
Nichols populates the movie with many memorable, colorful supporting characters.
In addition to Shannon, who plays Neckbone’s uncle, Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon play Ellis’ feuding parents, Sam Shepard is a cranky old sharpshooter, and Joe Don Baker is a kind of backwoods gangster. While welcome, they tend to overstuff the movie, which clocks in at 2 hours, 10 minutes.
They real key to the movie is Mud’s theoretical impotence, how he is stuck on the island, frustrated at not being able to do things himself, and having to rely on the boys.
Instead of focusing on the trio, Nichols spends time and energy building toward a disappointingly tidy conclusion, complete with an explosive shootout and showdown. It seems out of step with his natural themes.
Still, the movie is accomplished, exemplifying Nichols’ ability to create worlds too seldom seen on the big screen. The setting, characters and situations in “Mud” are fully formed and fully satisfying.