"Mud" has the feel of a classic, although it's perhaps not enthralling enough to be one. The third and most elaborate feature to date from writer-director Jeff Nichols seems to have been adapted from a novel that doesn't exist -- something by James Lee Burke, perhaps, or Cormac McCarthy, or some other specialist in frequently violent tales about the challenges to masculinity and the forging of new identities that face rural people who belong to a sprawling modern world -- who might be hanging out in a supermarket parking lot one moment and falling into a creek full of deadly cottonmouths the next.
That actually happens to young Ellis (star-in-the-making Tye Sheridan, in his second feature, after "The Tree of Life"), the true hero of "Mud."
The title character, beautifully played by Matthew McConaughey (currently on a career-best roll that includes "Killer Joe" and "Magic Mike"), is a gun-toting fugitive on the run from bounty-hunting assassins as well as the law, but "Mud" is really a coming-of-age story about 14-year-old Ellis, a boy facing the divorce of his combative parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson), new feelings for a pretty town girl (Bonnie Sturdivant) and the potential loss of his beloved riverside houseboat home.
These pressures make Ellis particularly vulnerable to the rough charms of Mud, a surrogate father figure with cross-shaped nails in his boots ("to ward off evil spirits") and a romantic backstory that suggests undying love is a reality, not a fantasy.
This is an irresistible notion to Ellis, shocked by his parents' breakup; it's also an indication of how "Mud" feels somewhat overwritten and overmotivated, especially in comparison to Nichols' compact previous features, "Shotgun Stories," a tale of feuding clans moved from the Old West to 2007 Arkansas, and "Take Shelter" (2011), which demonstrated why Michael Shannon was America's scariest actor even before he began drowning fellow revenue agents on "Boardwalk Empire."
River rats with free run of their wild environment, Ellis and his best friend, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), a boy with a crewcut and a Fugazi T-shirt, discover Mud on a lonely Mississippi River island, where he has taken up temporary, surreal residence in a boat wedged high in the branches of a tree -- a souvenir from a flood, and an almost magical apparition that contributes to the idea that Mud may have materialized in answer to Ellis' yearning rather than through some more mundane agency. The boys see Mud's footprints in the sand before they see the man himself, a detail that recalls Robinson Crusoe's discovery of the exotic Friday, although Ellis and Neckbone are more like Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn than something out of Daniel Defoe.
Mud is waiting on the island, he tells the boys, for word from the woman who is his lifelong true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). He enlists the boys to help him contact Juniper, and to otherwise aid his escape. A spinner of tall tales, Mud seems sincere, but the viewer is wary, even if Ellis isn't. (Another likely antecedent to Nichols' tale: The episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" in which Opie is befriended by a hobo, who beguiles him with "magic fish talk.")
A problem with "Mud" is that Mud and Juniper essentially remain in isolation for most of the movie, confined to their island and hotel room, respectively. This makes sense in terms of plot and theme, but it's a disappointment for viewers, who long to see McConaughey and Witherspoon strike sparks; instead, we get a violent finale that seems imported from another movie.
Nichols' achievement here is nonetheless remarkable; this is no Southern Gothic pastiche, but a convincing portrait of a South rarely seen onscreen, the South of Walmarts and mussel-diving, of hick accents and punk rock. "This way of life isn't long for this world," Ellis' father tells his son. We should be thankful Nichols is here to show it to us.