"Mud" starts with a boat in a tree. It's a thing of otherworldly beauty — seafoam blue and white and perched, as if on calm waters, snuggly between branches high above the forest floor of an island on the Mississippi River. Teen-age running buddies Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) have snuck away from their minders in early morning hours, perilously crossing the swirling river in a johnboat, to have a look. They'd like to claim it for their own, but there's a problem — signs point to someone already living in the boat. That someone, the boys quickly learn, is the titular Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a leathery, wild-maned stranger with crosses in the heels of his boots ("to ward off evil spirits") and snakes tattooed across his arms (to remind him not to get bit). He's hiding on the island from some bad men while he waits to reunite with the love of his life (Reese Witherspoon).
If this sounds like the prelude to a retelling of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," it's purposeful. Jeff Nichols, the Arkansas-born director of this Southeast Arkansas-set film, reportedly had his cast read "Huck Finn" on the set. Not, it turns out, for plot notes — Nichols ultimately carves his own narrative path — but presumably to get that electric sense of youthful adventure running up against the mean world that Twain explored so fruitfully. It's a tension that animates "Mud." Other themes will be familiar to those who've followed what Nichols calls his Arkansas trilogy of films (never mind that his second movie, "Take Shelter," was made in Ohio because of financing): The bonds of family and the contours of masculinity loom large.
In "Mud," 14-year-old Ellis is trying to make sense of all the above. His father (Ray McKinnon) and mother (Sarah Paulson) appear to be on their way towards splitting up, an event that would be doubly traumatic to Ellis because it would mean leaving the houseboat on the river where the family lives and moving to town. Meanwhile, he's crushing on May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a high school girl who all but towers over him. When Ellis spots another boy harassing May Pearl in the way that dumbass teen-age boys sometimes mistake for flirting, he sees a damsel in distress and swoops in to pop the boy in the face.
Later, when Mud tells him he's on the run after protecting his woman, Ellis finds a kindred spirit and father figure. Mud's girlfriend, Juniper, fell for the wrong guy, who knocked her up and then knocked her around within an inch of her life, Mud tells Ellis. So Mud killed the abuser. Now the man's no-good, well-connected daddy (Joe Don Baker — "the real-deal triple-six Scratch himself," Mud calls him) has bounty hunters out to kill Mud. Gradually, Ellis, dragging Neckbone along, comes under Mud's sway.
McConaughey gets top billing here for good reason. It's the high point for him on a recent run of strong roles. Nichols gives him room to be weird. His dialogue matches his natural, drawled-out, stone-y charisma better than any role since he was Wooderson in "Dazed and Confused," and he delivers it with a timing that's all his own. Witherspoon, the other A-Lister, is solid in what's ultimately a bit part, slumming it here in a grimy role for the first time since the mid-'90s. The rest of the name players of the ensemble — McKinnon, Paulson, Sam Shepard as Mud's surrogate father and Michael Shannon as Neckbone's goofball uncle and caretaker — are strong as well. But it's the young boys, Sheridan and Lofland, who carry the film. Sheridan came recommended after he made his debut as the boy who grows up to be Sean Penn in Terrence Malick's "Tree of Life." Lofland is a newcomer from Yell County who answered a casting call. They each give remarkably understated, naturalistic performances. It's hard to think of better teen-age leads. Sheridan, with his hooded eyes doing most of the work, plays Ellis with a quiet intensity (until he erupts). Lofland's Neckbone usually wears a toothy grin; he's the comic foil always working an angle. Their friendship is utterly convincing.
"Mud" is the biggest film Arkansas's ever seen. It cost more, has more star wattage and, based on early response, is likely to do better at the box office than anything that's come before. It's clearly of a piece with Nichols' earlier work — in a good way, by my lights. But because of its plot and stars, "Mud" is almost certain to be his biggest crowd pleaser, the movie that introduces Nichols to the mainstream. It's PG-13 and, aside from some gentle cussing and some flashes of violence, it's a story that's likely to be appreciated by all ages. Go see it.