“Ellis” (Sheridan) and “Neckbone” (Lofland) are two teen boys living on a river in Arkansas who make an amazing find one day. A boat, stuck in a tree. They immediately decide it is theirs, until they look inside and discover that someone is living there. There being a somewhat remote island up-river from where they live. The boat’s occupant is Matthew McConaughey, who tells them his name is “Mud” and he wants to make a deal with the boys. If they will supply him with food, he will let them have the boat. He’s waiting to meet someone and once that someone and he connect, he’s leaving. The boys agree to the deal.
Ellis lives with his mother (Paulson) and father (McKinnon) on a riverboat. Things are not going well between his parents. Ellis helps his father out with his business of selling fish along the river while going to school in town. He’s got a crush on “May Pearl” (Sturdivant). He takes food from the cupboards at home and takes it out to Mud on the island.
The boys eventually learn that Mud is waiting for his girlfriend, “Juniper” (Witherspoon), who happens to be staying in town at a motel. She’s being watched by “Galen” (Shannon) who wants to find Mud. So do the police. Turns out that Mud shot and killed a man who was giving Juniper a rough go. Galen has been sent, along with a number of thugs, to find Mud. His father, “King” (Baker) wants Mud dead and he wants it now.
Once Mud learns that Juniper is in town and that Galen and his crew are around, and that the cops are searching vehicles on the highway; he realizes his only possible escape is to get the boat working and to leave on the river. He needs the boys to help him, but there are things even they can’t do for him. So he asks them to seek help from “Tom Blankenship” (Shepard) who happens to live across the river from Ellis. Blankenship refuses and the boys set out to do the work themselves. The question is, will the trio get the boat running in time for Mud to escape before King’s men track him down and kill him.
Last year Matthew McConaughey gave four stellar performances, in Bernie, Killer Joe, Magic Mike and The Paperboy. He delivers again here, bringing Jeff Nichols’ scruffy, morally confused, lost soul to life from the excellent script. The concept of a lost soul seeking to reclaim his great love is not new but Nichols and McConaughey combine to make the story work and work well. However, it is Tye Sheridan who really amazes here. It is a magnificent performance for such an inexperienced actor, making the angst of a tortured teen so damn realistic. Reese Witherspoon’s considerable talents are not put to good use though, as any attractive actress could have done this role in her sleep. There’s just not that much to the character.
This is fine filmmaking and worth paying full price if necessary. See Mud.