After his thematically challenging, emotionally taxing first two films, “Shotgun Stories” and “Take Shelter,” one wouldn’t have naturally predicted that budding American auteur Jeff Nichols would next move on to an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser of a boys’ adventure film. But I suppose Nichols needed a break from doom and gloom, just as audiences do, and there couldn’t have been a better classic entertainment for the filmmaker to channel his knack for capturing the cultural spirit of the American heartland into than “Mud,” a Mississippi River-set riff on “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Not only is Nichols playing tribute to Twain, but the bygone kid-headlined (if not necessarily kid-audience-friendly) adventure film of the 1980s, like Rob Reiner’s “Stand by Me,” which went out of style as soon as real-life kids’ adventures moved from the great outdoors to their Nintendo-equipped television screens. “Mud” is a wholly deliberate throwback: even though the film takes place in the present, there aren’t any new-fangled gizmos in sight. When the title character needs to send a message to his love, he doesn’t reach for a cellphone, he sends a handwritten note by courier.
Indeed, “Mud” could have been made 75 years ago with minimal alterations, and in today’s technology-obsessed cinematic landscape, this is something to cherish. The film’s sense of timelessness casts a spell on the viewer, as 14-year-old protagonist Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) aid the alluring, river-island-camped fugitive Mud (Matthew McConaughey) in his attempt to win back the woman he adores (a roughed-up Reese Witherspoon) so they can disappear together, in exchange for his belt-tucked pistol.
Much of “Mud” is a rough-and-tumble fantasy, with Ellis and Neckbone evading both the police and a violent mob of bounty hunters as they track down Witherspoon’s Juniper and deliver her messages from Mud. But Nichols imbues the film with a surprisingly effective sensitive side, as Ellis, infatuated with a girl a couple years his senior at school (Bonnie Sturdivant), relates to Mud’s deep sense of aching for a woman who may not love him back. In fact, by the end, “Mud” becomes just as much about heartbreak as it is about adventure, and the way Nichols and editor Julie Monroe draw parallels between the men’s respective romantic arcs through the cutting is perfect.
The richness with which Nichols depicts this setting and the actors portray their characters is also especially impressive. A whole world awaits in “Mud” — from Ellis’ family’s old houseboat, to the Mississippi’s current (one of the great treats of Adam Stone’s cinematography), to the unpopulated island where Mud and the film’s focal image (the broken-down boat he plans to fix up and escape on, suspended in a tall tree) reside. And the people who inhabit these locales are just as memorable: Sheridan, who you may remember from “The Tree of Life,” and first-time actor Lofland turn in exceptionally organic work for teenage performers, and McConaughey manages to exude both magnetic mystique and white-trash criminality.
But there is one flaw that keeps “Mud” from becoming a masterpiece, of the caliber of Nichols’ prior two works. A little more than halfway through, the director makes a major error: broadening the film’s perspective beyond that of the boys. Everything up to this point is seen through Ellis and Neckbone’s eyes, and as a result, the fable-like elements of the story are easily attributable to their young imaginations. But when Nichols suddenly conducts a scene in the third-person—an over-the-top prayer between the bounty hunters, outside the boys’ view—and then follows it up with a few others, he robs the audience of the “child’s eyes” explanation. This is a real problem when the plot, in the fable vein, moves in increasingly contrived directions as it mounts to its violent climax. Had Nichols simply kept the perspective with the boys, realism never would have been an issue.
Still, even though “Mud” misses the mark in one key way, its virtues are undeniable. Especially now that we’ve entered the summer, the film is the perfect reminder that the best popcorn-movies rarely star men donning capes and tights. A well-told story with authentically human characters and compelling supporting elements—the Southern-Gothic symbolism here, for instance—is always more rewarding than mindless visual spectacle, resistant as audiences may be to accept this truth. “Mud” is the best kind of mass-appeal film there is, and if enough mainstream viewers are willing to give it a try, in spite of its shoestring budget and franchise competition, I have no doubt that it’ll live a long life thanks to positive word-of-mouth.