The Southern-fried drama "Mud" is an electrifying example of what happens when you merge a crackerjack yarn with a very specific setting, and then pour on the heat with riveting performances.
In rural Arkansas, two 14-year-old boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), have discovered an old boat stuck in a tree on a remote island downstream from their town. They plan to make the boat their clubhouse, until they quickly figure out someone's already using it.
The man using it, played by Matthew McConaughey, says his name is Mud. He says he used to live nearby, but has been away a long time. Mud also says he's come back for his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), from whom he has been separated for a long time.
But Ellis learns more about Mud from other sources. He learns from state troopers that Mud is a fugitive, wanted for killing a man. He learns from Juniper that others want to find Mud before the police do. He learns from Neckbone's Uncle Galen (Michael Shannon) that the river washes up all sorts of trash, human and otherwise. And he learns from Tom (Sam Shepard), who lives across the river from Ellis and is the closest thing Mud had to a father, that little of what Mud says can be trusted.
At the same time, Ellis is learning other things about love. He watches as his parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) veer closer to divorce. And he experiences the pangs of first love when an older girl, May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), is sweet to him. Because of these events, Ellis' view of true love especially where it pertains to Mud and Juniper becomes quite skewed.
Writer-director Jeff Nichols creates a drama equal to his 2011 breakout "Take Shelter." "Mud" channels Ellis' observations and feelings about a tumultuous age when young love and family turmoil intertwine through an intense crime story. It's a coming-of-age story with a fascinating, if highly unreliable, adult figure looming large.
It's the twinned performances of McConaughey and young Sheridan that give "Mud" its juice. McConaughey shows, as he did in "Killer Joe," that he can be a tightly coiled spring waiting to go off. And Sheridan (who appeared in Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life") captures adolescent pain and determination without obvious histrionics.
The other "character" that makes "Mud" work is the Arkansas backdrop. It is Nichols' authentic portrait of a life, of houseboats clinging to the river and people scratching out an existence there, that makes Mud's desperation and Ellis' grit ring true.
Boys help a fugitive (Matthew McConaughey) in this gritty drama centering on love and murder.
Where • Area theaters.
When • Opens Friday, April 26
Rating • PG-13 for some violence, sexual references, language, thematic elements and smoking.
Running time • 131 minutes.