With his first two films — Shotgun Stories and Take Shelter — Little Rock-bred, Austin-based writer-director Jeff Nichols built a reputation for fruitfully filtering the poetic naturalism of Terrence Malick through pulpier genre prisms. With Shotgun Stories, it was a Southern "family feud" about opposed trios of half-brothers. With Take Shelter, it was one character's zeitgeist-tapping, is-it-real-or-is-he-crazy hint at looming cataclysm.
With his third film, Mud, Nichols — younger brother of Lucero lead singer Ben Nichols, whose voice can be heard on the film's soundtrack — weaves this Malickian influence with something probably closer to the roots of his film fandom: the boy's-adventure format of '80s Spielberg.
Matthew McConaughey plays the title character, a drifter hiding out on a river island in Arkansas (the film was shot in and around Dumas, Dewitt, and Stuttgart), and he adorns the film's poster. But the protagonist is 14-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan, who made his debut in Malick's The Tree of Life), who is first seen sneaking out of his family's boathouse as his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) argue.
Ellis and his pal Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) have heard about a boat that got lodged high in the branches of a tree after the latest floods and set out to find it. But after they scurry up into this God-given treehouse, they discover the signs — a half-eaten loaf of white bread, cans of Beanee Weenee, a fresh footprint with a cross in the heel — of another inhabitant. This turns out to be Mud, whom they see back on the sandbar, a pistol in his jeans and a snake tattoo looping around his shoulder.
Mud suggests danger but also romance, and the boys — especially Ellis — grow entranced by his story: He's on the run from bounty hunters after killing a man who abused his true love, Juniper, and now he's hiding out on the island, waiting for her to come.
As in kid-centric Spielberg films such as E.T. or The Goonies, the adventure here is also a mechanism for negotiating regular-life issues, and, for Ellis, adulthood is fast approaching. The larger-than-life Mud and his doomed love for the equally otherworldly Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, in a brief but effective turn) come across almost like a manifestation of Ellis' own romantic confusion. Ellis is grappling with the impending separation of his embattled but well-meaning parents as well as the complicated interaction with an older teen he perceives as a first girlfriend. In the context of these life experiences, the escapade with Mud is part farewell to childhood and part expression of a romantic ideal.
But where those Spielberg films were aimed at children, Mud is an adult film likely to tap into viewers' childhood memories. Mud is more contemplative than audiences drawn to a crime/adventure film starring McConaughey might expect or want. Nichols' camera lingers on sunlight burrowing through tree branches, spiders trawling across tree bark, and a foreboding nest of cottonmouths in a muddy creek. The film does open up into a couple of action sequences, but this coming-of-age daydream stays grounded in an authentic sense of place and a sharp feel for small-town, working-class reality.
Opening Friday, April 26th
Cordova Towne Cinema and Ridgeway Four