Jeff Nichols’ stellar Mud a climactic highlight of RiverRun

by Mark Burger

It may be a little early to start compiling a list of the best films of 2013, but Mud is something very special indeed. Rich in atmosphere and character, this vibrant coming-ofage drama from writer/director Jeff Nichols lives and breathes with a life all its own.

Newcomers Tye Sheridan (his second film) and Jacob Lofland (his first) plays Ellis and Neckbone, a pair of pals drinking from the cup of adolescence. On a remote patch of island in the Mississippi River, they encounter the title character (Matthew McConaughey), a mysterious but charismatic figure in whom they confide, and he in them.

Mud is a fugitive, of course, but in world of broken dreams and dashed hopes he’s also a figure of nobility and even chivalry, one who inspires in the boys a will, even against all odds — and all logic — the will to dream. Mud pines for his lost love, Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), who just so happens to be staying at the local motel in the Arkansas town where the boys live.

There’s more to the story to that, obviously, but Mud is one of those films that is better seen — and savored — than described. It defies some expectations, adheres to others, yet emerges a true original. Things progress at their own pace, yet there’s always something to engage the viewer, be it Nichols’ genuine affection for the landscape, the characters or the story. There’s an unforced and focused confidence in the film’s execution. Every aspect of the film seems to have a little something extra, a little something more.

The performances are exemplary, and even those actors who aren’t onscreen much have something of consequence to do, as well as something to add. So much of the story’s momentum depends on the two youngsters at its center, and Sheridan and Lofland are up to the task. So too is McConaughey, in a spectacular turn in the title role. So too are Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Ray McKinnon, Sarah Paulson, Bonnie Sturdivant (her first film, too), Joe Don Baker and Nichols favorite Michael Shannon. Good company indeed. There’s hardly a false note struck among the performers.

As the film draws to its conclusion, it does so in a fashion that is memorable, wistful, and even immaculate. When the film comes full circle, the circle is complete. Sounds almost simple, doesn’t it?

Mud makes it seem that way.

(Mud will be screened Friday at 7 pm in the Stevens Center as part of the RiverRun International Film Festival. Filmmaker and UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols is scheduled to be in attendance. Tickets are $10. The film is then scheduled to open in general release on Friday, Apr. 26.)