Mud begins with a boat in a tree. Its otherworldly presence lures 14-year-old best friends Ellis (Sheridan) and Neckbone (Lofland) to a tiny, untrammeled island off the Mississippi River in Arkansas to investigate. The boat is magical – what child doesn’t delight in the topsy-turvy? – but not without menace. Ellis and Neckbone soon discover they’re not alone on the island: A chip-toothed drifter named Mud (McConaughey) has been squatting in its hull, surviving on cans of Beanee Weenee and skulking the small stretch of land in his boots with nails cross-hatched on the bottom to “ward off evil spirits.” Mud asks the boys for assistance, first with food, then with delivering messages to the mainland, where his childhood sweetheart Juniper (Witherspoon) holes up in a hotel room. Sensible Neckbone, a pint-sized swaggerer fond of saying “shit” in all its colorful variants, is wary of Mud, but Ellis wants to help. Grappling with parents on the brink of divorce and his own fumbling at first love, Ellis takes to Mud and his romantic backstory like a true believer.
Mud, from the Austin-based writer/director Jeff Nichols, is many things at once, and all enriched by David Wingo’s double-stop, aching, stringed score: an evocative pictorial of working-class fishermen along the rivers’ banks, their livelihood under siege; a study in the dichotomy of river folk versus townies; a manhunt thriller colored by a tribalist vendetta that calls back to Nichols’ first feature, Shotgun Stories; and a coming-of-age story of a boy in earnest search of his polestar. Running through every iteration of the film’s byways is the idea of what it means to be a man, especially from the perspective of its central would-be man, the young and acutely sensitive Ellis. Sheridan, who previously appeared in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (the two films share a producer, Sarah Green), is straighten-up-in-your-seat great, a nonperformative reactionary who’ll break your heart when his eyes well with tears at a snub by a girl or when his cheeks bloom with red rage that he’s unwittingly betrayed the core values he didn’t even know he had, because he’s still a work in progress.
The female characters are not articulated as full-bodiedly: They are afforded respect and admiration, but not first-person identification. (Witherspoon, demonstrably game in a hardened portrayal, is still only totemlike; she exists, as with the other two major female characters, only in her relation to men, in her power to inflame and maybe ruin them.) But Nichols yokes his hypermasculine stories – of blood feuds and gruff family men buckling under the stress of being a provider – to a soulful romanticism. With American independent film teeming with so many shaky-cam snarksters, what an electric riposte to the status quo is Nichols, whose films are classically constructed and deadly serious. In his short but potent career, he’s mastered a wide-vistaed eye for the epic and the elemental. (For an interview with writer/director Jeff Nichols, see "Clear as 'Mud'"; for an interview with producer Sarah Green, see "Get the Green Light.")