Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) live on the Arkansas delta, where they like to spend their free time puttering about on the river and exploring the landscape. They are attracted to a particular island there, having noticed a boat stuck in a tree which they think would be a great hideout, so today have set off to check it out properly, timing themselves so they will get back to their homes promptly. But as they explore the vessel, Tye realises when he finds fresh food that someone is living in it and maybe they should get out quickly before he returns...
Mud, named after the character who is in fact hiding out in the flood-stranded boat, was the third film from writer and director Jeff Nichols, arriving hot on the heels of his previous year's effort, the doomladen psychological drama Take Shelter. It was impressive that he managed to get his act together and produce two movies in the space of a couple of years, and in the main the response was a warm one, with audiences luxuriating in the langorous storytelling and Southern-flavoured acting, but not everyone was won over. In fact, the good notices for Nichols' previous works seemed to have made him rather self-indulgent, and that showed in the texture.
What you had here was essentially Whistle Down the Wind, that classic British tale of an escaped convict harboured by a bunch of kids, only embellished and drawn out until it was less a lean and moving yarn and more a wallow in far too much of a good thing. Not that it was a dead loss, but it rambled on to the point of shapelessness until it abruptly turned into a Hollywood action flick for its grand finale. Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey (yes, he did take his shirt off), was the escaped convict in question, and he is discovered living on his island by Tye and the curiously-named Neckbone who are immediately taken with his charm and accept his offer to help him out in return for his gun.
First they get him food, then they are providing supplies to assist in renovating the boat so he can make good his escape, and then to top it all he enlists them to reach out to his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) who he was protecting when he managed to kill her aggressor. With the police turning a blind eye to the victim's father and his cohorts hunting down Mud themselves, we can be reassured that Mud is a decent man who just got involved with an unfortunate situation, but we are also aware he is manipulating the two boys into carrying out his dirty work; up to a point, he doesn't send them to stop the militia out to get him. To complicate matters Tye, who is really our main character, falls in love for the first time.
The object of his affection is May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant) who goes along with the attraction, yet since this is a film about lost innocence doesn't continue it particularly far (women are not to be trusted here), so it's only a matter of time before Tye twigs that the people you like are not always as noble as you would want them to be and his relationship with Mud will suffer. All very well, but there was even more to this, with Nichols' unofficial mascot Michael Shannon drafted in as Neckbone's uncle and guardian diving for river clams with his homemade get-up, or Sam Shepard living across the way with his rifle, shooting snakes swimming up (or down) the river, and to top it all Tye's parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are heading for a divorce. It came across like the director packing as much into his latest movie after his previous big break as possible as if he wasn't sure he'd get such a good chance again, or perhaps his imagination had run wild, so while it could be rich for some palates, unfocused could be another, less flattering way to describe Mud. Music by David Wingo.