By Eleanor Ringel Cater
You could say Hushpuppy meets Huck Finn in “Mud,” a remarkably fine film written and directed by Jeff Nichols.
Set a little ways up-water from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” in a soggy Arkansas tributary, “Mud” mixes the hard-scrabble reality of the Piggly Wiggly South with what’s left (barely) of the semi-mythic legacy of, say, Mark Twain.
The title character is a charming drifter played with exquisite rattlesnake charm by Matthew McConaughey. Mud isn’t a bad guy, but he’s capable of bad things — especially when he’s caught up in his blinkered romantic pursuit of a redneck temptress named Juniper (Reese Witherspoon, perfect as a sleazy angel in cut-offs).
Mud will — and has — do anything for her. Including murder.
However, these two are not the movie’s focus. That belongs to a pair of adolescent best buddies: Ellis (Tye Sheridan) who’s trying to negotiate his parents’ divorce, and the wonderfully-named Neckbone ((Jacob Lofland), a buzz-cut kid with a stand-up straightforwardness that seems to belong to another era (Somehow, you can almost see a Davy Crockett coonskin hat on his head).
Ellis is more taken with Mud; perhaps, because of his parents’ incipient split, he needs to believe in true love. So, he becomes the go-between who places himself right in the middle of what Mud has off-handedly deemed “a bad bit of business.”
“Mud” immediately brings to mind a long-ago early-‘60s British film, “Whistle Down the Wind,” in which an escaped convict (Alan Bates) is helped by two children (one of them Hayley Mills) who believe he’s Jesus Christ.
There’s much less of a spiritual angle in “Mud,” but the emotional tug — and unease — is similar. Plus the picture boasts a plethora of excellent supporting performances: Ray McKinnon as Ellis’s tough, bewildered father; playwright Sam Shepherd as a hardened recluse who lives on the houseboat across the river; Joe Don Baker as a matter-of-fact vigilante who’s out for blood; the aforementioned Witherspoon; and Michael Shannon (Nichols’ “Take Shelter” as Neckbone’s guardian/uncle.
One of the funniest bits in the entire film is Neckbone’s observation than he and Ellis need to stay outside the trailer for a minute or two because his uncle (inside) has his “doing it” song on (If you’re wondering, it’s “Help Me, Rhonda,” which also, grinningly, plays over the end credits).
Here’s “Mud” in your eye — and your heart. I don’t just love this movie because it gets the South so right; I love it because it gets everything so right. And McConaughey — as he did in “Bernie” and the otherwise-dismal “Magic Mike” — waves his big handsome self in our face and says, hey, don’t keep casting me in failed romantic comedies with Kate Hudson and Jennifer Lopez.
It’s time for an Oscar nomination…at the very least.