“It’s a hell of a thing: a boat in a tree.” It sure is, and in “Mud,” a boat in a tree is the catalyst to launch a well-rendered story that is ultimately about love.
Two 14-year-old southern boys, Ellis and Neckbone (think Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn), discover a boat lodged in a tree and claim it as their own special hideaway off the banks of the Mississippi River. The boat, however, is the home of Mud (a brilliant Matthew McConaughey), a fugitive hiding out until he can meet up again with the love of his life, Juniper (an underused Reese Witherspoon). Though Neckbone is suspicious of the worn-down and ragged man, Ellis feels immediate sympathy for Mud and agrees to help him get food and such with the promise that the boys will eventually get the boat.
The setting is perfectly rendered: a poor little fishing town, where the classes are established as the townies and those who work and live on the mighty river. It is set in modern times but it could just as easily be set 10, 20, 40, 60 years ago with little variation. This is important because, in an age where we have tracked down criminals and terrorists around the world, there is still a part of America that is almost inaccessible — a place where a fugitive is able to hide and not be found.
But Mud isn’t evil. McConaughey develops him as a superstitious lover, whose chivalry and sense of justice lead him to kill the man who physically abused the woman he loved. The love he feels for Juniper, a hot and cold romance, is what draws Ellis to sympathize with him. Ellis’ own parents admit to falling out of love and consider a divorce. Ellis needs to know that love is real, and he wants to help Mud in order for that to be proven.
Besides McConaughey’s brilliant performance, the true star here is Tye Sheridan, who plays Ellis with resolved confidence. He lives in a world where to his parents and elders it is “Yes, sir. No, ma’am,” but he does not allow shyness or embarrassment to prevent him from asking a girl four years his senior to be his girlfriend or from striking out against bullies and adults who are mistreating the women he meets. The real treat in Sheridan’s performance are the moments when he gets exactly what he’s looking for and his “did-that-really-just-happen” grin. He’s a subtle performer and that works perfectly here. At 14, he is already unsurprised by the badness in the world, but he still clings to the notion of love.
Witherspoon, on the other hand, underplays her minimal role. She is more an item, someone with whom you can’t connect. While that is not entirely her fault, she still plays the role with too much reserve. Following her recent arrest in April on disorderly conduct charges, her performance will likely receive added scrutiny. Some might ask whether this is the beginning of the end of her A-list career.
The rest of the cast, though, turn in strong portrayals of various, fully-figured and motivated characters, such as Michael Shannon’s sex-fueled man-boy uncle/caretaker of Neckbone and Sam Shepard’s reclusive hunter Tom Blankenship.
Ultimately, “Mud” works in the same way “Cool Hand Luke” or “Great Expectations” worked. You feel for the fugitive. You want him to escape justice thanks to the performances by Sheridan and McConaughey. Nearly all the rest of the supporting characters are fully realized and solid, which helps drive the relatively simple but strong story forward.