*** (out of four)
“Mud,” a backwoods tale of Southern justice and broken hearts, takes place in a world where spitting on your hands and shaking constitutes as solid a deal as any. That binds a contract between Mud (Matthew McConaughey) and 14-year-old Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), who with his pal Ellis (Tye Sheridan of “The Tree of Life”) has been routinely sneaking off in their little boat to deliver goods to Mud on the island where he’s hiding out.
Mud says he's waiting to reunite with his girlfriend, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Ellis, whose parents (Ray McKinnon and Sarah Paulson) are on the outs, particularly takes to Mud's determined chivalry. After all, Ellis doesn't hesitate to punch a guy he believes is doing a woman wrong, a philosophy Mud shares. Their bond drives “Mud,” which is a lower-key effort than writer-director Jeff Nichols' “Take Shelter,” whose star Michael Shannon appears this time as Neckbone's mildly sleazy uncle.
Nichols captures a great sense of place and numerous rewarding exchanges, including Mud explaining why he doesn't mind being called a hobo or homeless—but don't you dare call him a bum. The director gets fantastic work from Sheridan and McConaughey, who brings truth to the kind of charismatic, potentially untrustworthy fellow that turns up frequently on screen. Each romantic relationship in “Mud” seems one-dimensional and doomed to fail, so there's less emotional engagement than detached observation of one tragic matter of the heart after another.
A few too many plot developments pile up at the end of “Mud,” but it's a film whose focus and friendship makes for a consistently engaging two hours. If nothing else, it's a story about how at one point or another love makes liars of us all, either to others or ourselves.
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