There's a rhythm to the characters' lives in Jeff Nichols' coming-of-age tale Mud that makes the whole project feel something like Mark Twain's take on Stand by Me. The movie opens with 14-year-old best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) taking a canoe with an outboard motor down the Mississippi to a small island in order to check out a bigger boat that they've heard is stuck up in the trees. They not only find the oddly marooned boat, but also stumble across a homeless man living on the island. He introduces himself as Mud (Matthew McConaughey), quickly wins a small level of trust from the two boys (not to mention their total fascination), and asks them to bring him some food.
Ellis does return with supplies, and eventually gets Mud to tell him why he's hiding on the island. He says that he's waiting for the love of his life, a woman named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) for whom Mud has done some very terrible things. It turns out that Ellis is quite the capital-R Romantic for a young teen -- he believes in true love and doing anything to help those in the throes of it. This leads him to risk his life to help Mud, an adventure that will eventually involve an older girl he has a crush on, an elderly next-door neighbor (Sam Shepard) who might have been a government assassin, and a wealthy, ruthless family bent on revenge.
Nichols' script for Mud has rich thematic layers that crop up in scene after scene. He continuously shows how Ellis, who yearns to live according to Mud's down-to-earth yet undeniably chivalrous code, adapts when he learns some of the harder truths in life. Subplots involving the dissolving marriage of Ellis' parents, Neckbone's uncle's tips on how to treat women, and Ellis' burgeoning love life don't distract from the main throughline; they embroider our understanding of this complex kid.
As Ellis, Sheridan, in only his second movie, delivers an engaging and natural performance that's matched by Lofland -- who plays Neckbone as a born skeptic about everything except his devotion to his best friend. As a result, the duo have a rapport that's instantly believable. McConaughey continues his remarkable career rebirth with his work as the title character. His natural charisma and charm come through, making it easy to see why Ellis and Neckbone would quickly be drawn into helping him.
Set in Arkansas, Mud captures the rhythm of the South in a way few films do. Conversations have a slow drawl to them, and those speech patterns bleed through to the editing. That may frustrate impatient viewers, especially those who are responding intensely to the more thriller-like aspects of the story, but it's a purposeful creative choice by Nichols, who has full confidence in his script and his actors. He knows his story isn't about life or death, but this particular boy's coming-of-age in this particular place.
Following his expert psychological thriller Take Shelter -- a movie that dealt thematically with how society's safety nets are collapsing around us by providing a bone-deep character study of a regular guy suffering from schizophrenia -- Mud proves that Nichols, at age 34, is one of the most versatile and talented young filmmakers of his generation, an artist capable of crafting intelligent, nuanced scripts and then finding the right performers to bring his vision to life.