By Rich Cline
Writer-director Nichols continues to get inside the heads of his characters with this involving but overlong dramatic thriller. Like his previous film Take Shelter, this is another fable-like movie, this time harking back to Huck Finn with a boys' adventure story set on the waterways of rural Arkansas. It's impeccably shot and edited, with terrific performances even from side characters. But at over two hours, the long running-time tries our patience.
Our hero is Ellis (Sheridan), a shy but steely 14-year-old who dreams of one day escaping his backwoods community. For entertainment, he explores the rivers with his pal Neckbone (Lofland), and when they hear rumours of a boat stranded in a tree, they have to investigate. Sure enough, there it is, then inside it they discover the fugitive Mud (McConaughey). Even though he's wanted for murder, they decide to help free the boat so he can escape with his battered girlfriend Juniper (Witherspoon), who's hiding in a local motel. But Ellis and Neckbone need some help with this elaborate plan, so they turn to the scary old man (Shepard) who lives across the river.
Cinematographer Adam Stone beautifully captures both the evocative settings and the expressive faces of the actors, who all bring an introspective touch to their characters. Sheridan and Lofland are excellent in the lead roles, which are pretty demanding as these two teens have to grow up quickly. And McConaughey and Witherspoon dive fully into their much flashier roles, constantly surprising us with sparky details that take these people in unexpected directions. There's also a telling smaller role for Nichols' regular Shannon as Neckbone's haunted, sidelined guardian.
The film's meandering, slow pace might effectively capture the rhythms of life in this setting, but the narrative is drawn out unnecessarily by a number of side plots that add texture but not much else. Sure, these things help us understand the characters better and crank up the suspense for a violent climactic sequence. But the best thing about the film is the way it captures the boys' slow-burning adolescence, most notably in moments in which Ellis flirts slyly with Juniper. These kinds of scenes add depth that a nasty shoot-out never could.
Facts and Figures
In Theaters: Friday 10th May 2013
Box Office Worldwide: $21.6M
Distributed by: Lionsgate/Roadside Attractions
Production compaines: Everest Entertainment, FilmNation Entertainment
Contactmusic.com: 3.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%
Fresh: 164 Rotten: 4
Cast & Crew
Screenwriter: Jeff Nichols
Starring: Matthew McConaughey as Mud, Tye Sheridan as Ellis, Jacob Lofland as Neckbone, Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Reese Witherspoon as Juniper, Sarah Paulson as Mary Lee, Michael Shannon as Galen, Ray McKinnon as Senior, Joe Don Baker as King, Paul Sparks as Carver, Stuart Greer as Miller, Michael Abbott Jr. as James, Bonnie Sturdivant as May Pearl