Jeff Nichols' Mud displays a return to the coming of age story that seems to have been absent in film of late. Mud, with its Adventures of Huckleberry Finn-esque vibe, serves as an antidote to this lack. Set in smalltown Arkansas (Nichols himself was born in Little Rock), Mud unfolds with the story of Ellis (Tye Sheridan), and his friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preadolescents who literally and figuratively navigate the waters of the river around them. Ellis, who lives on a riverboat, has taken to sneaking off early every morning to go with Neckbone to an island where they’ve discovered a boat that’s washed up high in a treetop. It is there that they encounter a mysterious stranger named Mud (Matthew McConaughey).
A dichotomous figure from the start, Mud possesses certain Jesus-like qualities, introducing himself to Ellis and Neckbone by way of his footprints in the sand (which happen to leave an imprint of a cross at the heel). When asked about his business on the island, Mud assures them that he’s simply waiting for someone, and that he isn’t, in fact, homeless as Ellis and Neckbone are prone to believe. Before they leave, Mud offers them a trade: Food in exchange for the boat. Neckbone scoffs at the idea, but Ellis appears somehow moved by the proposal. Later, when Ellis returns home to help his father load his truck with fish, we learn that the marital issues he’s having with Ellis’ mother, Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson), are only worsening.
Although slightly concerned with the state of his parents’ marriage, Ellis is more concerned still with the well-being of Mud. He goes to Neckbone’s Uncle Galen’s (Michael Shannon, in a brief appearance) house to tell him he wants to go back to the island where Mud is enforcing his own self-imposed marooning. While Neckbone isn’t half as riveted by Mud’s plight, he offers to go with Ellis so he won’t be there on his own. Upon arriving, Mud is only mildly surprised to see them again, and starts to tell them of the woman he’s waiting for--a great beauty named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Neckbone mocks the idea of him having a girlfriend, but Mud is later vindicated when Ellis and Neckbone see Juniper shopping at the Piggly Wiggly.
In the meantime, Ellis has started to develop a romance of his own with a high school girl named Maypearl (Bonnie Sturdivant). In spite of this, he still can’t curb his intriguement over Mud’s story. When his father tells him that Mary Lee wants a divorce and that the riverboat might be seized by the government, Ellis takes to the island in the middle of the night to talk to Mud. When Ellis tells him that he saw Juniper, Mud’s excitement is immediately obvious. The wheels begin to turn in his head as he starts to think of how he can communicate with her. The greatness of the obstacle in talking to her is not fully revealed to Ellis until he’s sitting in the car with his mother and the two encounter a police roadblock. The officer shows Mary Lee a mug shot of Mud and inquires if she’s seen him. Shocked by this revelation, Ellis and Neckbone go to confront Mud about his crime. In response Mud calmly confesses that he killed a man who got Juniper pregnant and then threw her down some stairs.
Realizing the true depths of his love for Juniper, Ellis and Neckbone agree to help him fix the boat in exchange for his rifle so that Mud can escape with Juniper. The pressure to flee intensifies as Carver (Paul Sparks) and King (Joe Don Baker), the brother and father of the man Mud killed, start to harass Juniper about Mud’s whereabouts. Seeking counsel from the curmudgeonly old man, Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), who lives in the riverboat across from Ellis, Mud is chastised for foolishly pursuing a woman who has never been half as devoted to him as he is to her (ain’t that always the way when it comes to love?). As someone who has known Mud since he was a boy, Tom has seen the ways in which Juniper has turned his life upside down.
With really no way to end but in tragedy, Mud highlights the characteristics of loyalty and fraternal camaraderie that are usually reserved for classic novels or 80s movies. The friendship between Mud and Ellis is ultimately what stands out, not Juniper’s betrayal or the ambiguous fate of Mud. So here’s hoping Nichols continues using a distinctly Southern backdrop as the subject of his films, because, for now, he’s the only answer to a cinematic version of Mark Twain and William Faulkner.