Jeff Nichols' script for "Mud" is a lot like the Mississippi River that serves as a backdrop for the tale of unrequited love. There are times it is big and powerful and other times when it becomes so serene it's easy to forget the depths that hide below.
The flow of this film comes from the friendship that forms between lovesick teen Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Mud (Matthew McConaughey), a rambling man who has taken refuge on a small island in the middle of the river. Mud returns to the small Arkansas community where he grew up, a place where he killed a man who abused the love of his life, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Mud wants to reunite with Juniper, but he's being hunted by the family of the man he killed.
Much of the film is about the efforts by Ellis and his no-nonsense sidekick, Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), to help Mud repair a boat that's washed up on the island. It's to be his escape vehicle. As the work progresses, Ellis and Mud form a bond based on their mutual heartaches. The meeting comes at the right time because Ellis is looking for a mentor as his own family life is beginning to unravel.
"Mud" is a quiet movie about love and loss. Its strength comes from one of the best performances in McConaughey's career. He manages to make Mud both the kind of ruffian that teen boys would admire, but also sensitive enough that it's easy to believe he would isolate himself on an island and moon for a woman based solely on the hope he might win her heart again. He's tough enough to make you think he's got all the answers, but he shows enough weakness to prove he doesn't.
The film's other big asset is Sheridan. Movies built around young actors can fall apart quickly if the performances are weak. Nichols directs Sheridan with such skill that his character comes across with a deep honesty without compromising the wide-eyed optimism that comes with youth.
Nichols creates a strong flow for the movie, which never gets tangled in the multiple stories. He's smart enough as a director to know when you're telling a story this personal, it's OK to be subtle in the way scenes play. There's a fabulous moment with McConaughey and Witherspoon where they share a quiet wave. It says far more than any dialogue.
"Mud" works because of solid direction, writing and performances -- especially the work by McConaughey.
"Mud," rated PG-13 for violence, sexual references. Stars Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Reese Witherspoon, Jacob Lofland. Directed by Jeff Nichols. Running time: 130 minutes. Grade: B+ Theaters and times for this movie | Other movie reviews
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.