Set in small-town Arkansas, 14 year-old Tye Sheridan and his pal Jacob Lofland come across a boat hanging in a tree. They find out that the boat is the current abode of a dirty-looking stranger (Matthew McConaughey), who goes by the name Mud. They get to talking, and before long they are friends, with the boys even bringing food for the man, who appears to be hiding from authorities. The details only slowly reveal themselves, but involve a murder (justifiable homicide, so says Mud), and a somewhat trashy local girl (Reese Witherspoon), whom Mud claims is his girlfriend, and whom he is waiting for. Meanwhile, Sheridan’s mother (Sarah Paulson) and embittered father (Ray McKinnon) are experiencing turbulent times, whilst Lofland’s laidback uncle (Michael Shannon) starts to wonder what the kids are up to. Joe Don Baker and Paul Sparks play the mean-spirited father and slimy brother of the man McConaughey killed, and are looking for revenge/justice/retribution. Sam Shepard has a small part as a taciturn, elderly local with ties to McConaughey and Witherspoon that he’d rather remain in the past.
Writer/director Jeff Nichols hit it out of the park in 2011 with “Take Shelter”, but this 2013 mixture of coming of age tale and broken romance story is much less interesting. Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon are perfectly cast, and Ray McKinnon offers an excellent supporting performance, too as a sour but well-meaning father. Witherspoon is particularly fine in the most layered character, allowing her to show a sweetness but also a darker edge that is more indicative of her earlier work. One of the best performances actually comes from an actor who is completely unfamiliar to me, Paul Sparks, who is really quite creepy in a nasty supporting role.
Unfortunately, child actors Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland are dull, and the former is sadly the film’s lead protagonist. The kids just aren’t interesting or appealing enough to carry so much of the film. The story doesn’t always go where you expect it to, but that doesn’t mean it’s not clichéd either, and boy is it ever clichéd. However, the kids for me were the bigger problem. You can get into a familiar story if the characters are easy to latch onto. That’s not what happens here.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about the film is the scenery captured by cinematographer Adam Stone (“Take Shelter”). Stone really won the mother lode here, as the scenery and sunlight do the bulk of the work. Some really nice shots of fog-laced, backwoods lakes in particular. Me likey a lot.
It’s a watchable film, but something is definitely missing, and I think the McConaughey and Witherspoon characters should’ve been about 5-10 years younger. It’s pretty overrated if you ask me, and it’s a huge waste of Sarah Paulson, Michael Shannon (though he shows versatility by playing a nice, normal guy), and Joe Don Baker. Maybe if it were more “Sling Blade” or “Frailty” than “Huckleberry Finn”, it might’ve had more appeal to me.