Mud opens to two boys getting up before dawn to the sound of each other over walkie-talkies, all so that they can take a small outboard motor dingy up through the rivers on an adventure. Once they reach the mouth of their smaller channel they come across a large island with a blue and white boat stuck firmly in the trees, brought there by some flood. Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) are quizzical and excited, at first claiming the boat their own. Then they come across canned food and magazines and realize that someone else is already living in their boat. Down by the shore they meet him, a man simply named Mud (Matthew McConaughey). With the snake tattoo on his arm, cross on his boot-heel, and stories to go with everything else, Mud is a romanticized folk hero for the boys.
Ellis does not question Mud’s integrity throughout the film, as his devotion to Juniper (even when she doesn’t always offer him hers) gives him hope, as he makes his first ventures into romantic affairs and his parent’s relationship crumbles before him. Mud makes the boys, Ellis in particular, feel needed and he trusts them with the true stories of his life. At least the two boys take Mud’s stories to be true, but when we later hear conflicted versions of the story the boys begin to lose the naivety of taking everything at face value. As they continue to help Mud with food and then with other supplies for escape from both the cops and the more dangerous bounty hunters after him, the two boys mature substantially from their innocent beginnings.
Matthew McConaughey gives yet another fantastic performance, continuing his streak of success over the past few years. Tye Sheridan is a promising young actor, and co-stars Sam Shepard and Michael Shannon are also both great additions to the cast. The entire film is elevated by some outstanding performances, but even more so by Nichols’ stellar writing and character development. He approaches complex themes like love from so many angles one could discuss this film for days, and while the conclusion is a potentially disagreeable, it doesn’t stop this film from being a great piece of work. Like the two boys leaving their comfortable tributary for the greater river, this film plunges them into the great unknown of adolescence, and is wonderfully enjoyable.