'Mud' rich and murky

Bruce Kirkland, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 3:22 AM ET

Mud -- the title that American indie filmmaker Jeff Nichols chose for his latest opus and its lead character -- is blunt, crude and murky. Just like the title character that Matthew McConaughey plays with such beautiful savagery.

McConaughey, in one of the most nuanced and complex performances of his career, plays an outlaw in contemporary times. None of his usual leading man swagger and arrogance is in evidence. In its place is McConaughey's submergence into a character who is charismatic, flawed, probably dangerous and yet compelling all the same.

Mud, the character, is on the run, having a killed a man in Texas. The victim's criminal family members are tracking him down through a hardass bounty hunter. The manhunt has moved to Arkansas on the banks of the Mississippi River. We meet familiar faces with Sam Shepard, Michael Shannon and Joe Don Baker in key supporting roles.

But this movie is not really about Mud or the other adults. It is about the two teenaged boys who discover that Mud has hidden himself in an abandoned boat caught up in a tree on an uninhabited island during a past flood. The makeshift hideout is now perched high above the ground, an aerie for a wounded bird of prey.

The three protagonists establish an uneasy alliance. Mud needs the boys to get him food, keep his location secret and help him contact his tragic lover (Reese Witherspoon in a virtual cameo role). There is a reason Mud chose this town to hole up in.

The boys, meanwhile, need to learn about life, specifically the "muddy" areas of moral choices and the even more opaque realities of romantic relationships. This turns the movie into a superior coming-of-age and rites-of-passage story. Writer-director Nichols gives us a heightened thriller-style drama with layers of subtext, much like Stand by Me or River's Edge. The boys are so skillfully played that Mud also plays like cinema verite. Nichols' fluid camerawork suggests a documentary-style approach. That helps these young lads transform into flesh-and-blood characters who get our attention and support.

One is played by Tye Sheridan, the exciting kid actor from Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. Sheridan has the potential to morph into the next Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Sheridan's companion in this adventure is played by an Arkansas youth, Jacob Lofland, who has never acted before. Playing Neckbone (great name!), Lofland just 'is" on-screen, the real deal. That is a testament both to Lofland's naturalism and Nichols' skills. Great child performances come from a delicate collaboration.

Nichols has other talents, too. He is a wonderful storyteller who rarely overplays the plot. While Mud the movie is neither as electrifying nor as mysterious as Nichols' masterwork Take Shelter, it does hold us throughout. We are plunged deeply into the muddy Mississippi of legend. It is no accident that Sheridan and Lofland invoke memories of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. These are boys who learn about life by living it.

bruce.kirkland@sunmedia.ca


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