Director: Jeff Nichols
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon
3 (out of 5) Globes
After awakening with the kind of hangover that comes with doing too many movies with Kate Hudson, Matthew McConaughey stopped accepting rom-com scripts. The plan was to clean up his act and fulfill his early promise. The McConaughey Comeback Tour, which launched with “Magic Mike” and “Killer Joe” last year, continues with “Mud,” the latest from “Take Shelter” filmmaker Jeff Nichols. McConaughey plays Mud, who is found by two boys — Ellis (Tye Sheridan, “Tree of Life”) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) — on a tiny island in nowhere, Arkansas.
“Shot a man; killed him,” is Mud’s explanation for himself, as he stares mythically into the river, dragging from a cigarette. Despite the .45 shoved into his jeans, he’s not dangerous — or at least not enough for us to be worried for our two young scamps. Far scarier than Mud are the men after him. Seems he got into a fight with the wrong man. The man’s father (no less than Joe Don Baker) has put out a hit on him. Another old timer (Sam Shepard), who may be Mud’s father, also expresses an interest in his whereabouts. But it falls to Ellis and Neckbone to play caretaker, bringing Mud food and passing messages to his not-quite-true love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, insert topical joke here).
Nichols is a throwback director whose patient dramas calmly summon a time of craftsmanship by the likes of Clint Eastwood and “Badlands”-era Terrence Malick. But he’s not self-conscious about it. His Cinemascope frames are clean and casually iconic, which wouldn’t seem to be possible but, in Nichols’ hands, is. He has a talent for matter-of-fact surrealism that is actually matter-of-fact: there is some business about a much-needed boat that has somehow wound up atop a tree.
“Mud,” like Nichols’ excellent “Shotgun Stories,” is a barely concealed twist on a Western, albeit one relocated to a Southern town. An atypically reserved Baker, with a legion of dangerous sons at his service, seems explicitly modeled on Walter Brennan’s dangerous pappy in John Ford’s “My Darling Clementine.” Even his final note calls to mind that film’s O.K. Corral showdown aftermath, when a character we thought of only as horrific is granted a moment of pathos.
The old-school vibe extends, it’s worth noting, to gender politics. The women of “Mud,” from Witherspoon’s hot pants-wielding Juniper to a high school senior who plays with Ellis’ heart, are heartbreakers or unreliable. Ellis’ mom (Sarah Paulson) fares best, but even she exists primarily to remind her husband (Ray McKinnon, “Sons of Anarchy”) of his financial and parental impotence. Even if Nichols’ world has yet to find a place for women, it’s still one whose laconic storytelling is hugely satisfying, even when it plays with conventions. As with “Take Shelter,” Nichols’ refusal to engage in coy, ambiguous endings is problematic in a way that’s perversely refreshing. He may be an old school director, but he’s not that old school.