Writer-director Jeff Nichols' third feature, Mud, is a movie that boasts some outstanding cinematography and some fine acting, but the overall experience of the film is, I'm sorry to say, unsatisfying, thanks to a muddled screenplay that lacks focus and never quite knows what it wants to be about.
Set on a riverboat house in the Arkansas swamplands, two boys named Ellis and Neckbone go searching for an abandoned boat they found stuck in a tree, presumably after a flood has taken place. When they find their boat it bears traces of evidence that someone has been living in it, and that someone turns out to be Mud, played by Matthew McConaughey, a fugitive on the run from bounty hunters and the law after having murdered a man. The boys, especially Ellis, grow enamored of him and Mud recruits them to help him fix up the boat for use, so that he can whisk away his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Whitherspoon), whom he's come there to find. This is clearly a Boo Radley inspired situation, but I only wish Mud were that interesting. The character as written is rather uncomplicated and dull, and on the screen is sold purely on the basis of McConaughey's usual charisma. Which is there in spades, and I don't mean to diminish him as he continues his career comeback by turning in one serious performance after another in interesting, smaller films for the past two years, but Mud's troubled relationship with his girlfriend is only vaguely touched on and never given closure, which is something you can say about several of the plot threads in this movie.
Of the two boys participating in Mud's home project, Ellis is the protagonist, and he's played very well by the appealing Tye Sheridan. He comes from a home where his parents are splitting up and he's feeling disillusioned about love, so he tries to find it elsewhere by helping to reunite Mud and Juniper, and trying to find a girlfriend for himself. The girlfriend story is something that's introduced and then tossed aside, while the parent's marriage is similarly focused on for singular moments but not addressed in any meaningful way. The script meanders between a series of only vaguely connected scenes without pulling the various threads together so that there's an impact to what we've been watching for two hours- and the violent climax near the finale feels particularly tacked on and out of place, as though Nichols didn't quite know how the film should end, and thought that missing impact might as well be an action scene. There's also another abrupt moment near the ending that endangers Ellis's life in a sequence that to me was very nearly completely ripped off from The Coen's True Grit a couple of years ago, and the mimicry robs that scene of its dramatic impact as well.
It's a shame that the story never comes together tightly, because all of the performances are excellent in the film, from the two young boys to McConaughey, to the parents played by Sarah Paulsen and Ray McKinnon, and even Reese Whitherspoon as Juniper, despite her character being the most elusive. But none of these people are ever explored in depth and just when we seem on the verge of getting to know them, Ellis wanders off into another disparate scene, taking the opportunity away from us. I should mention that the film is gorgeously photographed, and the locations (in Nichols' home state of Arkansas) are astounding to look at, placing us in an atmospheric South that feels vividly alive. Unfortunately I can't say the same about the people in it.