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Mud is, quite simply, the story about a boy who believes in love. While there is nothing revolutionary about the themes, the plot, or the way in which the story unfolds, there is something undeniably special about this movie. Surprisingly fresh performances by both Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, and the best performance by a child actor since Henry Thomas in E.T. (and I will stand by that), Mud is among the best independent dramas to come out in the past ten years.

The film’s pace is slow and steady, while building towards a tense, dramatic, and utterly satisfying third act. It takes its time, introducing us slowly to the characters and the rural Arkansas backwoods world in which they live. We first meet Ellis, a 14-year-old boy played by the previously alluded to Tye Sheridan (debuting in Terrence Malick’s 2011 film Tree of Life). Ellis and his best friend Neckbone, flawlessly cast by Jacob Lofland in his first film performance, stumble upon a boat on a tiny lake-bound island in Arkansas. It is here that they meet Mud (McConaughey), who has been living in and around this boat, and who strikes up a deal with the two teens: he will give them the boat in exchange for food from the outside world. Mud tells them that he cannot leave the small island (for reasons he does not disclose but, of course, turn into huge plot points later in the film) and that he is waiting for someone—this someone turns out to be his girlfriend Juniper, played by Witherspoon. This sets the stage for a story of friendship and loyalty, as Mud is revealed to be a fugitive from the law, and Ellis and Neckbone must decide whether or not to continue to help their new mysterious friend.

Not a second of screen time is wasted in this film. There are several B-plots throughout that all contribute immensely to the theme of the story, including Ellis’ relationship with his always-fighting parents, his introduction to young love and heartache, and the bond he shares with Neckbone. The plots are woven together seamlessly by Writer/Director Jeff Nichols, who is beginning to make a name for himself with this follow-up to his critically acclaimed 2011 film Take Shelter. Nichols succeeds in making a movie with a myriad of elements at work, including several A-List movie stars, and still making it come off incredibly real and emotionally resonant.

While Matthew McConaughey gives perhaps the best performance in what is perhaps the best role of his career (I will discuss this more in a second), it is completely overshadowed by Tye Sheridan. Sheridan shows a stunning range of emotions throughout the film. There’s a great scene in which he beats up an older girl’s potential suitor, and then proceeds to sweep her off her feet. There is another scene he has near the end of the film with Matthew McConaughey that will likely make you weep like a child. His performance will simultaneously crush you and bring you to your feet. A subtle look in his eyes changes the entire dynamic of a scene. I simply do not have the words to fully describe how good he is.

Back to Matthew McConaughey. It must have been at some point betweenFailure to Launch and The Lincoln Lawyer that he decided to start making movies of substance. Since his recent re-invention, McConaughey has chosen roles that showcase the fact that he is, in fact, a human. His portrayal of the dangerous-yet-complex fugitive Mud is no exception. The relationship he forms with both Ellis and Neckbone is fascinating to watch, as is trying to figure out what makes him tick. Is he the psycho killer that several people seem to think he is? Or is he really driven by the love for his girlfriend Juniper, the light in his eyes ever since he was a child? This is the driving question of the movie, and McConaughey’s layered and subtle performance helps keep us guessing.

The story, at its core, is one of love. The love of a boy, coming of age in a world that doesn’t seem to have much love left in it. The love of a man for a woman that is so strong he would kill for her. And the question of whether or not love is real at all. Mud is a masterpiece. As good as the main performances are, there are just as many incredible supporting performances (Michael Shannon as Neckbone’s uncle and surrogate father Galen, Sam Shepard as the strange, old neighbor next door, and Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon as Ellis’ parents). The score by David Wingo helps accentuate the tone that is so beautifully created by Adam Stone’s cinematography. The tight editing, the inspired writing, the gorgeous Arkansas backdrops. Jeff Nichols’ near perfect film will surely be remembered for years to come.

Movie Review by Mike Danner